Russia recover from France defeat, sweep Bulgaria and keep Olympic dream alive – France send Finland home with second win
2016 European Olympic Qualification - Men
Berlin, Germany, January 7, 2016. On Thursday Olympic champions Russia improved their win-loss record to 2-1 at the men’s European Olympic Qualifier in Berlin following their commanding victory over Bulgaria (25-20, 25-22, 25-17). Russia have now completed their duties in Pool B and have almost secured their progression to the semis coming up on Saturday. Later in the evening France beat Finland 3-0 (25-21, 25-20, 25-16) to make it two wins out of two and top Pool B ahead of Russia. A third consecutive defeat ended the Finns’ Olympic Games dream for this cycle and they have been eliminated from the European Olympic Qualifier.
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Bulgaria vs. Russia 0-3 (20-25, 22-25, 17-25)
Olympic champions Russia had only one option following Wednesday’s loss to EuroVolley gold medal winners France as they added another chapter to their rivalry with Bulgaria. It may sound impressive but these two teams had played each other in the semis at London 2012 with Russia emerging victorious (3-1) before they went on to claim a dramatic final match with Brazil. With the Rio Olympics still eight months away, there was nevertheless much at stake on Thursday night at the Max-Schmeling-Halle in Berlin and Russia were up to the task, taking the first period at 25-20.
With a few gold medallists from London 2012 still on their roster – like Maxim Mikhailov and Sergey Grankin, not to forget Volleyball legend Sergey Tetyukhin – Russia kept the pace high in the early stages of the second set (6-3). Russia’s lead also remained a comfortable one at the second technical time-out (16-12) as Bulgaria seemed to struggle to display their best performance. The Lions were evidently sidelined by injuries – their star players Tsvetan Sokolov and Todor Aleksiev could both not make it to Berlin due to injury or a recovery process still in progress – but they found the strength to close in (16-15) and eventually levelled the score at 16-all with a spike by their charismatic captain Vladimir Nikolov that ended a long and dramatic rally. Still Russia kept their focus and remained in control of the game taking the period 25-22 to further cement their leadership in the match.
Russia were even more dominant in the third set (9-3) and their advantage was extended to seven points (16-9) at the second technical time-out. At this stage Bulgaria’s chances to stay alive in the match looked very slim even though the Lions continued to fight with the character and determination they are known for. Bulgaria head coach Plamen Konstantinov changed almost his entire starting six in an effort to bounce back but Russia’s triumphal march was not to be stopped and the ‘Sbornaya’ cashed their second win in the tournament to set their sight on the semis coming up later this weekend.
Questioned about an eventual semi-final match with hosts Germany, Olympic champion Alexander Volkov said: “We should not focus on what the others are doing but rather on our game and on ourselves. We beat Germany twice shortly before the start of the tournament but Grozer did not play the matches in Kienbaum, and Germany are a totally different team with or without him. Anyway, every match is a different story and we would be starting from scratch.”
Bulgaria opposite Nikolay Uchikov commented: “Russia served very well and their reception was solid too. We made a way too many mistakes tonight and did not do anything of what we had planned. We still have a little chance [to progress to the semis] but France is very, very strong. However, we have nothing to lose and we will prepare ourselves accordingly.”
Bulgaria will be playing their last match in Pool B on Friday when they take on European champions and World League gold medal winners France.
France vs. Finland 3-0 (25-21, 25-20, 25-16)
As has been the case all week, Max-Schmeling-Halle was rocking to the sound of Finnish “Suomi” chants and having trailed 3-1 early on, Tuomas Sammelvuo’s side levelled at 4-4. France led once more, but despite Finland regularly scoring, the French maintained a three-point gap and led 18-13 as Earvin Ngapeth demonstrated his excellent spring in attack. Finland hit back again to trail by one at 22-21 but France pushed on and took the set 25-21.
Finland sprung a surprise on France at the start of the second set and led 8-4 at the first technical time-out. Their momentum continued soon after, as they had France rattled and it took them to a 16-12 lead at the second technical time-out. Olli-Pekka Ojansivu had been scoring highly for the Finns but France rallied and levelled at 17-17 shortly afterwards. Balls found their way through the Finland defence too often and France were playing their best volleyball. The 25-20 set win was confirmed when Antti Siltala’s reception failed from a fine Antonin Rouzier spike.
France were playing with great consistency and raced into a 13-7 lead in the third and final set. Finland continued to score but had nothing in their armoury to stop the rapid France attacks. Coach Laurent Tillie’s side led by eight at the second technical time-out and victory was a matter of time as Finland struggled to cope. Les Bleus won the set at a canter, 25-16.
“France are the European champions and of course they played really good,” Finland’s team captain Antti Siltala said. “I have some regrets for the second set where we set the pace for most of the time and we could not finish three, four points we should have scored; we missed an opportunity there and after that France was the dominant force.”
France libero Jénia Grebennikov said: “We played a good match, but not as good as yesterday’s. We had some problems in the second set but afterwards we played a lot more aggressive and could control Finland’s game. We only need to win one set to secure our spot in the semis and two to finish first in the pool, but we want to win every match we contest here. The semi-final will be difficult anyway, it does not really matter who we will be playing in the end.”
Finland and their magnificent travelling fans will now head home with pool matches complete, but France will look to secure the top spot with victory against Bulgaria in the second match on Friday.