September 19, 2003 - World Champions Italy and World No 1 Russia will start the European Women's Continental Championship as favourites when the eight-day tournament kicks off in Turkey on Saturday with two pools playing off simultaneously, in the cities of Ancara and Antalya.
Russia is ready to defend its title, while Italy will try to win the European Crown for the first time in its history.
The major question during the final round of the Women's European Championships will be which team can defeat Russia. The Russian team and the former Soviet Union have won the European title 17 times and the last time Russia failed to win the European Championship was in 1995, when the Netherlands claimed the gold medal in front of their home fans in Arnhem by defeating Croatia in the final and Russia in the semifinal.
Two years ago, when the most important European Volleyball tournament was held in Bulgaria, Italy had a chance to win the title, but Russia proved to be the best again after a thrilling (3-2) final. However, one year later, Italy managed to claim the World Championship title.
Both Russia and Italy have their strongest players in Turkey. The famous Russian coach Nikolai Karpol will call upon his super stars like Evguenia Artamonova, Ekaterina Gamova and Elizaveta Tichtchenko while Italy will have top players like Elisa Togut, Simona Rinieri, Francesca Piccinini and setter Eleonora Lo Bianco in its ranks.
Besides Russia and Italy, there are a lot of contenders for a podium place. The Netherlands has improved the last couple of years and after reaching the final round of the FIVB World Grand Prix this year and welcoming back power spiker Chaine Staelens from injury, the Dutch team have a great chance of reaching the last four. Poland (with their experienced coach Andrzej Niemczyk), Germany, Bulgaria, Ukraine and rookie Serbia & Montenegro are also capable of pulling off some shock results.
'All twelve teams playing in the final round are very strong', Niemczyk stated. 'All teams can win and lose against each other, so in my opinion it will be an exciting tournament.'
In Ancara, Pool 1 sees Russia, runner's up at the 2003 World Grand Prix, take on Germany, Slovakia, Serbia and Montenegro, Romania and hosts Turkey while in Pool 2, played in Antalya, Italy will take on Poland, the Netherlands, Ukraine, Bulgaria and the Czech Republic.
Russia are the defending champions and have walked away with the European Championship title in the past three editions while Italy, despite a disappointing performance in the World Grand Prix earlier this year, will be looking to continue on some of their magical form from 2002 when they claimed the World Championship title in Germany.
The two top place getters in each pool will qualify for the semifinals before the finals are held on September 28.