Ankara, Turkey, January 9, 2016. Italy secured their ticket to the World Olympic Qualification Tournament in Japan after winning the third place match against Turkey at the European Olympic Qualifier. Five sets were played before the Azzurre could seal their victory at the tie-break 3-2 (25-23, 19-25, 25-23, 15-25, 15-13).
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Turkey vs Italy 2-3 (23-25, 25-19, 23-25, 25-15, 13-15)
Both Turkey and Italy had missed out on a spot in the final on Friday, but still a lot was at stake in the third place match. Indeed, the winner would have progressed to the World Olympic Qualifier in Japan, playing there later this year for a chance to compete at the Rio 2016 Olympics.
Many fans had filled Baskent Hall to give the home team the final support in the tournament, but they witnessed Turkey trail 8-4 at the first technical time-out. Turkey worked hard to close in and almost succeeded in doing so trailing by only one point at the second technical time-out. Italy’s Martina Guiggi played an important role at this stage as she was twice the woman who made sure Turkey did not turn the tide. At 19-all Guiggi spiked Italy back in the lead, and at 21-all Guiggi’s rock solid blocking made sure Italy kept the lead. Guiggi scored an ace for 23-21 and the Azzurre eventually wrapped the set up 25-23.
In the second set Turkey managed to do what they failed in the first – take the lead, 8-5 at the first technical time-out. Trailing 11-7 Italian mentor Marco Bonitta decided it was time for a time-out, but Kübra Akman still served three more times, before Italy scored, now with a mountain to climb at 14-8. Coach Ferhat Akbaş’ team set their sight on winning the set and thanks to the most dangerous weapon in their armoury, Eda Erdem Dündar, Turkey led the set from start to end 25-19.
Turkey and Italy took turns with the home team 8-6 ahead at the first technical time-out of set three. Italy won one of the most spectacular points taking the lead in a moment where most people held their breath while the ball bounced on top of the net, before dropping down on the Turkish side after their spike (11-10). Italian top scorer Paola Egonu underlined what a strong tournament she has had. The 17-year-old outside spiker levelled the score three times in a row; 19-all, 20-all, and 21-all. Italy trailed 23-21, but with three more points from Egonu, including two aces, Italy came from behind and won the set 25-23.
A huge part of Turkey’s success in the tournament was due to Kübra Akman and Eda Erdem Dündar who have been the best blockers. The duo also had their hands in Turkey’s 8-3 lead at the first technical time-out in the fourth set and 16-11 by the second. The home team were unstoppable and cruised to a landslide 25-15 set win, cemented by a block out after Akman’s spike.
Playing their fifth match in six days several players naturally seemed a bit tired. Going in to the tie-break it was now a matter of who managed their energy best. Italy were in their third tie-break in the tournament whereas it was Turkey’s first. It was a close race but Turkey led 8-6 when the sides swapped ends. Italy’s most experienced player, captain Antonella Del Core, scored crucial points when she levelled the score 9-all and 11-all. Italy had two match points in their hands at 14-12 and closed the tie-break at 15-13.
Italy coach Marco Bonitta: “We are apparently good at playing tie-breaks. This was our third tie-break win out of three in this tournament. My team showed amazing heart and incredible soul today. I am very happy for them. I am just the coach, and I could not affect much. This victory belongs entirely to the players,” he said. “It is fantastic too see a group with many young and old players come together in only ten days. I do not know if this is a good result, but I am happy that we are still alive for the Olympics.”
Italy top scorer Paola Egonu with 23 points: “To be honest I am a bit surprised that we stand here as winners. I am very excited that we still have a chance of going to Rio. We played with all our heart and everybody gave their best.” she said. “The win is very important for us as our dream is going to Rio. I think I learned and grew a lot during the tournament, and I want to work hard so I can continue to improve before we play in Japan.”
Italy captain Antonella Del Core: ”This team has been going through a shift in generations, and I believe we have a good mix in age. It is a good thing with young blood as it brings new energy into the more experienced players. Turkey had to deal with a lot of pressure playing at home. I think it was in our favour that we could play with free minds, and I am so happy that we won.”
Italy middle blocker Martina Guiggi: “It is such an amazing feeling. It was very hard until the last point, especially after playing three tie-breaks in five days. The whole team is very tired, but extremely happy. In the last two sets I felt like a zombie, but I just had a job to finish,” she said.
“When you play matches at this level with the sight on the Olympics, you know it will be hard. Just before a big game like this you think about all the work you and the team have done in the summer, and you just say that the Olympic Games are a once-in-a-lifetime experience and you need to do everything possible to get there,” she added.
“I am very tired, but we are going to have a small celebration tonight. The problem is that we have the championship in Italy resuming soon and tomorrow we travel back home. We will celebrate, because we have to celebrate this step towards Rio 2016."
Turkey's Neslihan Demir Güler: “We wanted to at least go to Japan and make our people and the spectators happy, but we couldn’t make it and we are sorry. I think we are better than this. We had our moments from time to time in the game, but we could not extend that to the whole game. We did not perform well in general at this tournament.”