Germany claim tie-break win over Poland to finish top of their pool and set up semi-final with Russia
2016 European Olympic Qualification - Men
Berlin, Germany, January 8, 2016. Germany completed a clean sweep of their matches in the pool phase with a hard-fought tie-break victory over world champions Poland (21-25, 25-17, 25-22, 22-25, 15-10) to secure first place and set up a semi-final against Olympic champions Russia on Saturday afternoon. Later in the evening Poland will be taking on European champions France who dropped only one set in three matches they contested in Pool B. Earlier in the afternoon Serbia beat Belgium 3-1 (25-18, 21-25, 25-21, 25-21) in both teams’ final match of the men’s European Olympic Qualifier in Berlin. In their previous two matches defeats had come against Germany and Poland so pride was at stake for the players as they met in the first game of the day at Max-Schmeling-Halle.
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Poland vs. Germany 2-3 (25-21, 17-25, 22-25, 25-22, 10-15)
Germany’s ‘Volleyball Temple’, as the Max-Schmeling-Halle is also known, was sold-out for the last act of the group stage where hosts Germany and world champions Poland battled for first place in Pool A and the right to play Olympic champions Russia in the semis on Saturday. The number of Polish fans exceeded the local ones and the scenes in the stands easily brought back memories from a record-breaking World Championship Poland hosted in 2014. The atmosphere was amazing and the early stages of the match set the tone for the much anticipated duel between the respective star players – Germany’s György Grozer and Poland’s Bartosz Kurek. The White-and-Reds had a small edge and they widened their lead to four points at the second technical time-out (16-12). They continued to play with impressive consistency through to the end and their fans just roared following Poland’s set win (25-21).
Germany fought back and led the way right from the go in the second set (8-6, 16-12) as coach Vital Heynen decided to reshuffle his starting six with a few players who had not played much since the start of the tournament – Christian Dünnes, Sebastian Schwarz and the youngsters of the group, Simon Hirsch and Tom Strohbach. This seemed to provide an extra boost of energy to the German side and the hosts set their sights on the finish line when Poland’s coach Stéphane Antiga stopped the game at 20-13. The home fans got something to celebrate as Simon Hirsch levelled the game (25-17).
The hosts continued to rock at the beginning of set three (3-0) and as the course of the game did not seem to change, Antiga opted for an early time-out one rally later. He got the effect he was hoping for as the world champions closed in cutting their deficit to one point (6-5). Poland eventually levelled the score for the first time at 11-all before edging ahead on an ace by Karol Klos. The Polish fans were counting every touch of the ball by their heroes but the German supporters were not less passionate and were the ones to celebrate at the second technical time-out (16-13). An exciting final rush followed where Germany showed nerves of steel to score three in a row (23-20) and converted this into a 25-22 win with Hirsch once again being the man to score the last point.
Heynen opted for the same line-up in the fourth set but this time around Poland were off to a more solid start. Antiga gave some of his star players some rest but this did not affect his side at all as the Poles cruised to a compelling 25-20 win to extend the match to a tie-break.
This was the first time a fifth set was played at Max-Schmeling-Halle this week and Germany were back in fine form (5-3, 8-5) as the hosts seemed well en-route to securing first place in the pool with a third straight win. After the teams switched ends of the court, Germany moved even closer to the achievement of their goal by claiming a nerve-wracking rally (10-6) where everyone in attendance just hold their breath and the German party got started a few minutes later when the gold medallists from the Baku 2015 European Games cashed the second of their five match balls (15-10).
Germany coach Vital Heynen said: “I am happy with all 14 players on the roster. I made some changes and these players stayed on up until the end of the match. Tomorrow we have a big match with Russia, so it was important to save energy and to be fit tomorrow. It is going to be a difficult match, Russia are the Olympic champions even though France have been the best team here so far.”
Poland coach Stéphane Antiga commented: “Of course we tried to win but I didn’t want any player to have five sets on the court because tomorrow is very important. We have two important games ahead. It would have been crazy to let a player play that long. France are the favourites, they are playing very good. We played France three times recently and it was always the tiebreak. We won twice and they are the best team in the world this year and in decent shape. I know my players are all ready to play because they are fresh. That was the first objective to stay fit. Not one guy spiked more than 18 times so it’s been good preparation.”
Serbia vs. Belgium 3-1 (25-18, 21-25, 25-21, 25-21)
In the first set the teams started evenly and traded points until the first technical time-out. There was one of the shots of the match from Serbia’s Uros Kovacevic, when he applied a deft touch at the net to give his side the lead. However from the resulting serve the Serb fired his effort into the net, much to his frustration. Serbia maintained a three-point lead for much of the latter stages, stretched their lead and held out to win 25-18, with an ace sealing the set.
Dominique Baeyens’ Belgium responded well and led by one at the first technical time-out of the second set. They soon extended their lead to three at 13-10, but were behind at 18-17. The Red Dragons earned themselves four set points at 24-20 and a net fault gifted them victory.
Serbia recovered and led 8-6 in the third set, but both teams had service problems. They led by three at the second technical time-out as they moved to within a set of victory and with Aleksandar Atanasijevic scoring well they prevailed 25-21 thanks to a Kovacevic kill.
In the fourth set Serbia led early on and were ahead at the first technical time-out. But after a talk from Baeyens the Red Dragons powered ahead and led 17-13 as they tried to force a tiebreak. However, a great comeback from the Serbs put them level at 20-20 and ahead one point later. The win was confirmed when a powerful Serbian spike was too hot to handle.
“This is the end of our Olympic dream and we now have to wait for another four years,” said Belgium middle blocker Pieter Verhees. “However, we can be positive as we are still young and we have time to grow. It still feels sad to realise you have to wait for another four years to be given that same chance again.”
Serbia coach Nikola Grbic: “Yesterday we started the preparation for Tokyo. We will have to change some things to be able to support the team even if the result is not coming immediately. If we want to be there and be present we have to change. Usually I’m always thinking about where I made mistakes and where I can change things. Constantly moving up the ladder. I know about me but maybe for some of the team it’s not good. It’s also a process for me. Now I’m doing something else as a coach and it’s difficult to go inside the head of a player because I don’t have time. I did everything to the best of my ability but if the team is playing like this you really have to think about what you should change.”
Belgium’s long wait for another Olympic Games appearance goes on, having failed to qualify since 1968. Serbia, former Olympic gold medallists when competing as Yugoslavia at Sydney 2000, have missed out on a Games for the first time since Barcelona 1992.