Russia will defend Olympic gold after comeback against France
2016 European Olympic Qualification - Men
Berlin, Germany, January 10, 2016. Russia will be able to defend their Olympic gold medal from London 2012 later this summer in Rio de Janeiro as the men coached by Vladimir Alekno put on a sensational performance to come from behind and sweep three sets in a row (14-25, 25-16, 25-23, 25-21) in the final match of the men’s European Olympic Qualifier at Max-Schmeling-Halle in Berlin. Russia put an end to France’s winning streak in major international competitions and put the icing on the cake of a memorable weekend as only 24 hours before their women’s national team had won their tournament at Ankara. France, on the other hand, join Poland on a trip to Japan where in June these teams will be hoping to secure their appearance at this year’s Olympics, thereby bringing Europe’s contingent up to four – Italy qualified last year by finishing runners-up at the FIVB World Cup in Japan.
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France vs. Russia 1-3 (25-14, 16-25, 23-25, 21-25)
European champions France and 2012 Olympic gold medal winners Russia had already measured their respective strength earlier this week in a match where Les Bleus had dropped their only set so far in the competition. If people were to make a comparison with the women’s tournament in Ankara, they could easily spot a few similarities, with both hosts having ended their home campaign in a disappointing fourth place.
France, on the other hand, could emulate Russia’s women by adding to their European crown from 2015 yet another honour by finishing top of the charts in Berlin to secure their first Olympic appearance since 2004. The most successful team of the 2015 season were off to a flying start (7-3) after their fans had followed in the footsteps of the Polish supporters delivering an a cappella performance of ‘La Marseillaise’. The opening set was quite one-sided with France’s dynamic game resulting in an impressive 16-8 lead at the second technical time-out. The Earvin Ngapeth show was a real joy to watch for the French fans and the opening set of the ‘big final’ was quickly over at 25-14 with a spectacular smash by Antonin Rouzier.
Russia coach Vladimir Alekno opted for a different pair of outside spikers in the second set as Yury Berezhko and Alexander Markin replaced the usual combination starring team captain Sergey Tetyukhin and Egor Kliuka in an attempt to turn the tide after a demonstration of clear superiority by the Frenchmen. This move paid off with the Olympic champions building a four-point lead (8-4) and Russia set the pace from start to end for a commanding 25-16 set win.
After a disappointing 2015 season where they underperformed in the World League and at the World Cup before losing to Italy in the quarterfinals of the European Championship, Russia were expected to peak when it counted the most and they had evidently improved the quality of their performance since their opening match in Berlin on Tuesday. After two fairly one-sided sets, the third was finally the close and exciting race fans would expect from a match where so much is at stake. Russia got a slim edge at the second technical time-out (16-14) and France seemed not quite able to produce the same level of performance they had shown in set one. Even Ngapeth was not up to his usual standards as well and a mistake by the French star prompted a time-out by coach Laurent Tillie. It did not revive France’s chances of winning the set as much as Tillie hoped as the European champions fended off two set balls before Berezhko had the last say (25-23).
It was the first time since the beginning of the tournament France had to come from behind and Les Bleus seemed unable to deal with this unexpected scenario. They had rarely played in the previous matches but Markin and Berezhko proved to be right men Alekno had chosen from his never ending pool of talent, with Russia leading 8-5 at the first technical time-out. A sensation was probably going to happen – and once again Alekno would have been given much credit for it as he got in the Olympic final at London 2012 where Russia came from behind after he decided to move Dmitriy Muserskiy from the middle blocker to the opposite’s position. However, Les Bleus did not want to give in and a pipe attack by Ngapeth reduced Russia’s lead down to one at 12-11. A short break was enough for Russia to score four points in a row and even though France claimed one of the most exciting rallies of the entire match, their chances looked minimised with Russia being 21-15 up. In a last effort to change the course of the game, Les Bleus closed in at 21-18 but the Markin & Berezhko show continued. Two points away from securing a ticket to the Rio Olympics, Russia survived a last scare before Yury Berezhko claimed three match balls, and a block by 2012 Olympic champion Alexander Volkov finished it all off at 25-21.
Russia coach Vladimir Alekno said: “I would like to stress that this tournament was a lot more difficult and competitive than the European Championship three months ago. Of course I am very happy with the result and also for all players on the team who have worked hard towards this achievement.”
France libero Jénia Grebennikov: “We won 25-14 in the first set and afterwards Russia played very well, so it was hard for us. They served very well and were also physical. I think they played very good volleyball and they blocked us every time. They also defend a lot and they played a perfect game. We have a ticket for Japan and I hope everything will be OK to qualify for Rio.”
France’s outside spiker Kévin Tillie: “We were a little bit surprised how it went (after a dominant first set). We struggled to keep the intensity and we crashed a little bit. We’re confident but we’re going to have to take match after match like this tournament. It will be tough in Japan.”