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Halkbank one step away from home glory in Champions League Finals

The Bulgarian mentor of Halkbank Ankara, Radostin Stoytchev, erupts in joy after his players claim a spot in the final match of the 2014 CEV DenizBank Volleyball Champions League
Ankara, Turkey, March 22, 2014 - Halkbank ANKARA made on Saturday a first step on their way to write history for Turkish Volleyball. The team captained by Matey Kaziyski routed Poland’s JASTRZEBSKI Wegiel in straight sets (25-21, 25-19, and 25-19) in the second semi-final to get the right to challenge Belogorie BELGOROD in the final match of the 2014 CEV DenizBank Volleyball Champions League coming up on Sunday at 5 pm local time.

This already stands as Turkey’s best result in the competition since its inception back in the 2000/2001 season. On Sunday the players mentored by Radostin Stoytchev will try to add another chapter to their success story by winning a title that a whole country has been waiting for since a few months. If they succeed and accomplish their mission, they will also get the right to represent Europe at the 2014 FIVB Men’s Club World Championship due to take place in early May in Betim, Brazil.

Turkey’s Volleyball family had been waiting for this day to come since mid-December when it was announced that Halkbank would play host to the Final Four Tournament of this year’s CEV DenizBank Volleyball Champions League – Men. Last year Halkbank had already added another chapter to their glorious history by winning the CEV Volleyball Cup but on that same day the management of the club started shaping their plans to achieve even more. Some months later they transferred some of the world’s best players in order to fulfil their dream of claiming the trophy of Europe’s most coveted Volleyball competition. Their “D-Day” had finally come and with a victory over JASTRZEBSKI Wegiel, Halkbank would have anyway improved on the best result ever claimed by a Turkish team in the Champions League, i.e. the fourth place that Arkas IZMIR had settled for back in 2012.

This was already the third time that Halkbank and JASTRZEBSKI were crossing their ways this season after sharing victories in prelim Pool F (Halkbank had opened the League Round with a 3:1 home victory before Wegiel responded with a 3:2 in the last leg of the prelims). The Baskent Volleyball Hall was almost fully packed with a small orchestra adding extra flavour to the great ambiance surrounding the home heroes captained by Matey Kaziyski. On the other hand, one of the short ends of the court was filled up with the fans of JASTRZEBSKI, all wearing the orange outfits they have become – both domestically and internationally – known for. JASTRZEBSKI also wanted to improve on their fourth place from the 2011 Finals in Bolzano so as to emulate PGE Skra BELCHATOW, the only Polish team that ever starred in the gold medal match of the CEV Champions League (that happened two years ago in Lodz).

The head coach of Halkbank Radostin Stoytchev had revealed on the eve of the Finals that his players were carrying enormous pressure on their shoulders since the expectations of everyone around the team were terribly high. After a relatively slow start, Halkbank could finally level the score at 6 all on an ace by one of their most solid Turkish players, middle-blocker Emre Batur. However, JASTRZEBSKI responded by scoring another two to call for the first technical time-out leading the way at 8:6. Halkbank then flipped the charts around at 9:8 before Cuban-born Osmany Juantorena added another point to the count of the home side with one of his signature moves, a terrific crosscourt from the left wing. Halkbank continued to set the pace of the game also halfway through the set (16:13) and another ace by Batur prompted a time-out by JASTRZEBSKI mentor Lorenzo Bernardi (18:14). In the end the hosts of Halkbank could keep their focus and cruise to a 25-21 set victory that sparked extra enthusiasm among some 6,000 fans in attendance at the Baskent Volleyball Hall.

Similarly to what had happened in the first set, Halkbank initially trailed in the score also in the second but soon found their way back into the game drawing level at 4 all. After JASTRZEBSKI set the pace at the first technical time-out, Halkbank slowly but surely changed gear to make it 14:11 and show – if only needed – their determination to claim a spot in the gold medal match against Belogorie BELGOROD. Bernardi decided to briefly replace team captain Michal Lasko since the left-handed opposite was not living up to his status and resume, but Halkbank continue to impose their pace, widening their lead up to four points (19:15). That show of strength by the home side continued through to the end (25-19) with a superb performance in all fundamentals as the Turkish team was masterfully marshalled by their Brazilian-born setter Raphael.

Halkbank success was driven by an outstanding performance in reception, with the home heroes’ figures standing at a mind-boggling 93% in the second set. The Polish dream of glory was nevertheless not yet shattered as the score remained very tight in the early phases of the third set. The story repeated itself with Wegiel leading the way by 8:5 at the first technical time-out before Halkbank clawed back to level the score at 12 on an ace by Mitar Tzourits. The home side edged past a few moments later (14:13) and yet another ace by Emre Batur called for the second technical time-out by the score of 16:14. The tactics prepared by head coach Radostin Stoytchev worked just fine; he only had to stop the game once more to stand a late comeback by their opponents (20:18), before getting back full control of the operations for a more than deserved straight victory.

“This result does not surprise me,” said Lorenzo Bernardi. “If you have a look at their roster, and at the quality of the players they have, I do not think that anyone may say that this result comes as a surprise. Though we lost in straight sets today, I am very proud of my team and of what we have achieved this season. I am convinced that at the beginning of the season only a very few would have reckoned with us for a spot in the Final Four. I am proud of my players, including those who did not play that good tonight. Tomorrow we play a final, though for the bronze medal, and we have to remain focused on it because even a bronze medal would be a very important achievement for our club.”

“I think that we had prepared very accurately for this game and we had carefully analysed our opponent, taking our lesson from the defeat we had suffered in the group stage,” said Halkbank team captain Matey Kaziyski. “Our plans worked just fine, we especially pressured them a lot with our serves and this way we could prevent them from playing their fast game and from using their excellent first tempo. I would like to thank all those who came here this afternoon to cheer on us and hope that even more will be attending the final match on Sunday.”

“I have a lot of respect for Lorenzo and for his players who have worked very hard to make it to the Finals,” added Halkbak mentor Radostin Stoytchev. “That said, I think that if you register only 28% of efficiency in reception like they did in the second set, in modern Volleyball you definitely do not stand a chance to win a set. As for tomorrow, it is self-evident that I expect a very difficult game. I still do not know exactly how we can stop their middle-blockers, but as I said in yesterday’s press conference when I quoted Nelson Mandela, a winner is a dreamer who never gives up. I know that tomorrow we have a very difficult task but for sure I am not going to come to the sports hall to surrender and give in that easily.”

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