Bulgaria and Italy have to turn odds as they vie for Olympic final
Bulgaria vs. Russia
After many ups and downs in the past months as the team booked their Olympic pass only at the very last minute by taking one of the three world’s Olympic qualifiers held in early June, Bulgaria have turned into the real sensation of the men’s tournament, starting by topping the charts of preliminary Pool A and afterwards extending that great momentum by routing Germany in straight sets in the quarterfinals.
With Tsvetan Sokolov being their major force in offense – with a total of 102 points in six matches, a figure whereby he stands as the second best scorer of London 2012 – Bulgaria have returned back to the top four 32 years after striking silver at the Moscow Olympics. Since those glorious times Bulgaria had found their way to the world’s elite only once, and namely by claiming bronze at the 2006 World Champs in Japan.
Their next opponent along the way to Olympic glory will be Russia, another team that have gone through contrasting results in the lead-up to London 2012. After capping the table of the 2011 FIVB World Cup in Japan, the guys coached by Vladimir Alekno missed out on a spot for the World League finals but eventually got back on track at Earls Court, especially via a classy performance in the 1/4 finals where they literally downed Poland, another pre-favourite for the Olympic title. Their absolute standout Maxim Mikhaylov has clipped a total of 106 points in the tournament, and is an outstanding all-round player whose block and jump serve complete an array of world-class volleyball skills.
Bulgaria will go for a mission impossible having lost all previous matches – eight – with Russia (or the Soviet Union) on the Olympic arena so far. Bulgaria’s last win over Russia dates to the prelims of the 2011 FIVB World League, while Russia claimed the last match-up in the 1/4 finals of last year’s European Championship in Karlovy Vary, Czech Republic.
Brazil vs. Italy
After struggling in the prelims, Italy caused quite a sensation by surging back in the 1/4 finals and cruise past the 2008 Olympic champions of USA in straight sets to redeem for losses to Poland and Bulgaria and a relatively disappointing fourth place at the end of pool play. Even though they were the major force to reckon with back in the ‘90s, Italy have never won an Olympic gold, losing an epic final match to the Netherlands in Atlanta back 16 years ago.
The last obstacle on their way to the final match is represented by Brazil, with the triple world champions having also stepped up the quality of their play after a disappointing campaign in the last edition of the FIVB World League. The side captained by Giba easily disposed of Argentina in the 1/4 finals and has embarked on an ambitious quest to emulate Russia and USA, the sole nations with three Olympic crowns in history up to London 2012.
The South Americans, always accompanied by plenty of colourful and loud fans at Earls Court, won gold in Barcelona (1992) as well as in Athens (2004) and another crown would be the perfect farewell for some players who have been part of the group for the past decade. The head-to-heads on the Olympic stage clearly speak for Brazil with 7 wins and no losses to Italy but after their terrific show of strength against USA, none shall rule out an additional sensation for captain Cristian Savani and his teammates.
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