Russia Advances to Men's Volleyball Gold Medal Match
2012 London Olympics: Men's Volleyball
Russian Teammates Celebrating their Victory over Bulgaria
Russia end Bulgaria's triumphal march to advance to final match
In what was a classy semi-final match Russia got the right to fight for Olympic gold at Earls Court on Sunday after edging Bulgaria 3-1 (25-21, 25-15, 23-25, and 25-23). Russia will be going for maximum result by playing Brazil; after the break-up of the Soviet Union that claimed three titles, it will be Russia's second appearance in an Olympic final after Sydney 2000 where they ended up by losing to Yugoslavia.
Bulgaria remains in contention for their first Olympic medal since 1980, something only a few may have predicted before the start of their adventure in London.
Maxim Mikhaylov once again paced Russia with 25 points, including 2 blocks and 2 aces, to win the much awaited duel with Bulgaria opposite Tsvetan Sokolov who registered "only" 16 but whose efforts were well supported by Todor Aleksiev (15) and Todor Skrimov (11). Bulgaria will return back in action on Sunday at 9:30 local time vying for bronze against Italy -- the loser of the other semi-final match.
After turning into the real sensation of the Olympic tournament at Earls Court, Bulgaria got to play Russia in the first semi-final, a very demanding task especially after the terrific show of strength displayed by the players coached by Vladimir Alekno in the quarterfinal with Poland.
Anchored by their setter Georgi Bratoev, Bulgaria's spikers started out by imposing a quick pace and a double block on Russian hero Maxim Mikhaylov contributed a 3-point lead by the second technical time-out. Russia, however, gradually found their way in the game and an ace scored by veteran Sergey Tetyukhin eventually forced Bulgaria coach Nayden Naydenov into a time-out (17-16).
It did not work, as Tetyukhin followed up with another service winner to finally draw level in the score before Todor Skrimov could get Bulgaria back on track with a tip over the mighty Russian block. Similarly to what had happened in the previous match with Poland, Russia coach Alekno had opted for Sergey Grankin to marshal his spikers and Russia got finally to the front on a Bulgarian net violation.
Bulgaria trailed by two points as Bratoev could not find the right timing with his wing spiker for the next attack; after another break, top scorer Tsvetan Sokolov could find a way through the Russian defense, but the 36-year old Tetyukhin and an ace by Nikolay Apalikov contributed three set balls, with the first opportunity sealed by middle blocker Alexander Volkov for the provisional 1-0 (25-21).
Supported by many fans who had found their way to Earls Court, Russia and Bulgaria re-started their battle in the second set where the winners of the 2011 FIVB World Cup opened the gap quite early (5-2). Bulgaria assistant coach Camillo Placi' had a short talk -- in Italian as most of the players included in the roster have been playing in the local Serie A1 -- but Russia's supremacy was gradually asserted via a combination of terrific jump serves, superb blocks and the always spectacular back-row attacks by Mikhaylov (8-2).
Bulgaria gradually lost control of the game, with the score getting a little embarrassing (11-2) for a side that had impressed for their consistency in the previous rounds of the Olympic tournament. With HSH Albert II, the Sovereign Prince of Monaco also in attendance, himself a former Olympian in bobsleigh, Bulgaria eventually clawed back (14-10) before Tetyukhin stopped their positive series and the second mandatory stop was called by an ace scored by Mikhaylov (16-10).
The superstar of CEV Champions League winners Zenit Kazan plus Sergey Tetyukhin from the serving line and the always intimidating block stretched the Russian lead to 20-14 and with the contribution of captain Taras Khtey, Russia quickly cruised to a 2-0 (25-15) that looked like a good omen on their quest to make it to the Olympic final.
Bulgaria got back some high-quality play for the opening of the third set going up 11-8 as their defense got more stable thereby paving the way for their best scorers, Todor Aleksiev and Tsvetan Sokolov, to stand the tremendous challenge brought by the Russian block.
Once more cheered by the president of their Olympic Committee, Stefka Kostadinova -- who on Thursday had finally celebrated the first Olympic medal for her country, silver brought by wrestler Stanka Zlateva -- Bulgaria "lions" could display their full potential but a serving error by Sokolov helped Russia draw level at 15. Russia got past in the score on another mistake by their opponents but Bulgaria got back on track via a single block of Aleksiev and a little controversial call of the first referee to move up 18-16. The match got very tight as Bulgaria block-defense system worked much better than in the previous sets but Sokolov spiked long to help Russia go for the 20-20 on the scoreboard. As some tension was clearly to be felt Naydenov asked for a time-out to calm down his guys but Mikhaylov blocked to score what looked like an anticipated match ball for Russia.
These Olympics have turned into a kind of disaster for Russia with only 12 gold medals on their account with only two and a half days still to go -- the worst result in Olympic history for the main heir of the Soviet Union -- and the fans expect men's volleyball may save a little the honour of "Mother Russia" but Bulgaria eventually got a set ball at 24-23 that was promptly pocketed by captain Vladimir Nikolov with an ace.
The "neutral" audience at Earls Court was evidently longing for a tie-break and hence openly supported Bulgaria and loudly celebrated every single point claimed by this side that set the pace of the game by the first technical time-out of set 4 (8-5).
Russia initially struggled to close that gap but with Mikhaylov and Tetyukhin again on fire eventually got past for the first time at 11-10. With some variations in attack brought by setter Alexander Butko, and the addition of Dmitriy Ilinykh in offense, Russia went up by two (16-14) but Bulgaria fought their way back with a delicious tip by their setter Georgi Bratoev contributing the 18 all.
The final rush turned into a breath-taking race and an extension of the duel opposing the respective diagonal players, Maxim Mikhaylov and Tsvetan Sokolov, who were regularly called up by setters Butko and Bratoev in an attempt to anchor their side with a series of terrific spikes. Russia showed great composure, with a block by Apalikov and an ace of Volkov piling up two match balls and the second attempt being cashed by Mikhaylov (25-23) to fire up the celebrations.
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