Second Olympic chance for world champions Poland after Germany thriller
2016 European Olympic Qualification - Men
Berlin, Germany, January 10, 2016. World champions Poland were able to regroup and hit back strong after losing Saturday’s semi-final to France to edge hosts Germany at the end of a real thriller (3-2; 20-25, 25-22, 16-25, 28-26, 16-14) where the home side missed out on an opportunity to close the game in the fourth set. As a result Poland will board a plane to Japan to continue their chase for a ticket to Rio 2016 at the World Olympic Qualification Tournament scheduled for early June. Germany’s valiant effort was not enough to crown their home campaign with a success with the men coached by Vital Heynen suffering the same destiny as the hosts of the women’s European Olympic qualifier, Turkey.
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Poland vs. Germany 3-2 (20-25, 25-22, 16-25, 28-26, 16-14)
It was the second time in three days Poland and Germany played each other but this match was meant to be a lot different than the previous one which was contested on Friday when completing the group stage of the tournament. Indeed, there was a lot more at stake with the eventual winners keeping their Olympic dream alive by getting the right to join the World Olympic Qualifier taking place in June in Japan.
Thousands of Polish fans once again performed their national anthem a cappella, but hosts Germany were not too impressed and caught the better start, leading the way at the first technical time-out and prompting another break – this time asked by Poland coach Stéphane Antiga – at 11-7. The local superstar György Grozer had not quite lived up to the expectations in Saturday’s semi-final with Russia but this time the ‘Hammerschorsch’ was up to the task, spiking and blocking for a three-point German lead at 16-13. World champions Poland fought back to close in at 16-all and edged ahead for the first time at 18-17 after a video challenge revealed a touch by the German block. Grozer smashed the ball down once more at 22-18 and the gold medallists from the Baku 2015 European Games gave the partisan crowd a first joy when they closed the opening set 25-20 in their favour.
The disappointing end of the first set was a wake-up call for Poland, but their early 6-4 lead was soon cancelled out by Grozer, the man whose bright shoulders were supposed to carry Germany’s dream of staying in contention for a spot to compete at Rio 2016. With the gold and bronze medal winners from the 2014 World Championship in action, a close race continued in the second set and this did not come as a surprise as the tournament had reached its real climax. Germany fought hard to double their lead in the match but Poland responded well, closing in at 21-all after trailing by two points before turning the tide with two consecutive blocks by Marcin Mozdzonek. The Polish fans were somehow revitalised by this positive run of their heroes which culminated after a German time-out when team captain Michal Kubiak sealed their set win at 25-22.
Germany did not suffer too much from this setback and got off to a flying start in the third set (8-5). The hosts had a positive run halfway through the set which was propelled by Poland’s many mistakes and lack of consistency in reception. The fans further boosted the home side towards a compelling 25-16 set win which turned the match into a come-from-behind mission for Poland if they wanted to stay in contention for the much coveted ticket to Tokyo.
The home side’s positive run continued in the early stages of set 4 where Poland lost a video challenge to set up a 4-1 German lead. The White-and-Reds seemed unable to compensate for this early deficit as Germany’s collective effort continued to pay off (14-11). However, probably feeling the pressure as they could glance at the finish line, Germany’s rhythm suddenly broke down and Poland equalised at 14-all. As they had done in the second set, Poland showed they have the stamina of a world champion closing in again after trailing 17-15 before edging ahead on a spectacular spike by their captain Kubiak (19-18). Grozer finished a dramatic rally to restore the balance at 20-all and the match reached its climax. At 23-23, Germany were only two points away from accomplishing their mission. Kurek spiked out of bounds for Germany’s first match ball but Philipp Collin served in the net. Poland turned the tide with a block on Denys Kaliberda and Germany coach Vital Heynen had no choice but to call a time-out. At 25-all, Grozer missed a serve to provide Poland with their second chance to go at the tie-break but the ‘Hammerschorsch’ Immediately made amends for this mistake by restoring equality at 26-26. The scenario of a tie-break eventually turned into reality after Grozer was blocked for Poland’s eventual 28-26 set win.
Germany edged ahead 3-1 early on in the deciding set and they were clearly determined not to suffer Turkey’s destiny as the hosts of the women’s continental qualifier had lost on Saturday the third place final to Italy at the tie-break. Yet again Poland came from behind and the Michal Kubiak show continued as Poland got closer to upsetting the local crowd (9-7). Grozer responded with a few of his trademark shots (9-9) as the tension mounted. Germany used Grozer’s power from the service line to put pressure on the Polish receivers and as a result Kubiak was stopped at the net for a 12-11 German lead. Two points in a row by Kurek turned the tide once more (13-12) and the first match point for the White-and-Reds soon followed (14-13) as the decibels at Max-Schmeling-Halle reached the maximum. Mateusz Bieniek served out of bounds before Mateusz Mika claimed a second opportunity for Poland to board the plane to Tokyo. Mika was the one who fired up the party for thousands of fans, leaving locals upset, when he finished it all off at 16-14.
Poland coach Stéphane Antiga said: “We must be extremely strong mentally in this kind of match. Even if we made mistakes we didn’t usually we did OK. We were just playing to be alive, not to go to Rio. You could see the instinct to go there. I am very happy because last summer we played three competitions. We lost by two points to France in the semi-finals of the World League. In Japan it was also very close against Italy and also against Slovenia in Bulgaria [at the European Championship]. Today we were the ones with the fine margin.”
“We are stronger than we were and have a very young team. It hurts but we are building to be strong in the future. We don’t need motivation for these kind of games but we feel at home. The fans help us and we felt good. We didn’t feel as though we were in Germany so it helps when Germany are dominating. It’s great to know we have millions of fans behind us. I think it would be a pity if Poland didn’t go to Rio because of the atmosphere and this great organisation. It’s a pity for Europe that some great teams won’t go,” he added.
Germany coach Vital Heynen said: “We played our match and this is good. We played so good that we only missed one point to beat the world champions and stay in the race for Rio. However, Poland were better in the end and they deserved to win. I said to my players they had to keep on fighting. We belong to the world’s volleyball elite, we beat Poland and Serbia, but it was not enough. I am still fairly disappointed, but this feeling will be mounting in the coming weeks and months. You have to learn from your defeats in order to improve and get better. I am confident that in four years Germany will be competing at the Tokyo Olympics.”