France beat Poland to set up all-star final with Olympic champions
2016 European Olympic Qualification - Men
Berlin, Germany, January 9, 2016. European champions France will be trying to repeat what Russia did on Saturday in Ankara where they added another chapter to their supremacy in European volleyball by claiming the women’s European Olympic Qualifier and with it the right to compete at Rio 2016 later this summer. France were made to work hard for two sets but after that Poland almost collapsed and everything went smoothly for Les Bleus who closed the match 3-0 (29-27, 32-30, 25-20). The gold medal winners from the 2015 World League have secured their passage to Japan – where the World Olympic Qualification Tournament will be held in June – and on Sunday will play Russia for a ticket to Rio 2016 in the final act of the competition in Berlin. Poland, on the other hand, will be trying to bounce back and keep their Olympic dreams alive contesting the ‘small final’ with hosts Germany that will open the programme of the last competition day on Sunday early afternoon.
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France vs. Poland 3-0 (29-27, 32-30, 25-20)
The second semi-final of the men’s European Olympic Qualifier started with a spine-tingling a cappella performance of France’s and Poland’s national anthems by their respective supporters. This emotional opening scene set the tone for what was going to follow as France and Poland were both determined to clinch the remaining spot in the final of the tournament. France had beaten Poland last summer in the semis of the World League Final Six in Rio de Janeiro and Les Bleus – who have been marching from triumph to triumph also in Berlin dropping only one set in the pool stage – were hoping this could be a good omen for Saturday’s clash with the White-and-Reds.
It was impossible to separate the two teams in the opening set where the fans enjoyed also the much anticipated duel between the respective opposites, Antonin Rouzier and Bartosz Kurek. France had a slim edge at both technical time-outs but Poland rose to the occasion towards the end of the set. The world champions claimed set point at 24-23 but Earvin Ngapeth cancelled this first chance of a 1-0 lead in the match as actions resumed after a time-out. The French star, however, provided Poland with their second chance of winning the opening set when serving into the net and Mateusz Mika seemed to have converted this one to fire up the party in the stands. However, the video challenge showed there was no touch by the French block and the score was adjusted to 26-all. Michal Kubiak’s pipe attack piled up a third set point for Poland, but this time around it was Kevin Tillie to upset the Polish crowd. More disappointment followed for the fans of the White-and-Reds after an ace by Rouzier prompted France’s first set point and Les Bleus cashed their second opportunity to celebrate a 29-27 win and get a first edge in the match.
The story of the game did not change in the early stages of the second set as a real display of world-class volleyball continued at Max-Schmeling-Halle. Poland fought hard to come back from the setback they had suffered in the previous set but France always found a way to respond to their attempt of breaking away in the score. The European champions could rely on a large group of passionate fans and set their sight on doubling up their lead in the match when leading 21-18. Two time-outs requested by Poland’s French coaching staff cut the deficit down to one point (21-20) and a block restored the balance only a few moments later. Rouzier got France back on track but it took as many as eight points before the 2015 World League gold medallists could celebrate a hard-fought 32-30 win.
After such closely contested sets and two consecutive setbacks for Poland, everything went smoothly for France in the third where they built up a commanding lead (10-5) as their opponents seemed unable to regroup. France delivered a real show of strength displaying all of the skills that have sky-rocketed them to the world’s volleyball elite. Only a miracle could save Poland from losing this match as the White-and-Reds trailed 16-8 at the second technical time-out but it was not going to happen. France showed no intention of slowing their pace down and they kept on scoring point after point. Les Bleus briefly lost focus as they relaxed a bit too early but that did not last for too long and they eventually cashed their ticket to the big final of the European Olympic Qualifier as Earvin Ngapeth sealed a 25-20 win.
France outside spiker Kevin Tillie commented: “Russia are Olympic champion so they have really good players. I thought Russia were going to go to the final and we did too so it’s good.”
Middle blocker Nicolas Le Goff added: “We have to keep calm in the head and when we get here tomorrow, we are here to win. I don’t prefer one team over the other. We will play against Russia but it would have been the same against Germany.”
Poland middle blocker Marcin Mozdzonek said: “It was a real fight, a top-level match with incredible actions, both in defence and attack. France had a little bit more luck towards the end of the first and second sets. We can only congratulate them because their performance was absolutely superb. We did not put enough pressure with our service and as a result everything went smoothly for their setter. Right now it’s about all or nothing in the matchup with Germany. It will be a totally different match than the one we contested on Friday. I am hoping for a great game, also for the fans.”