The second day of the U17 Middle European Championship in Zadar gave us the finalists. The first semi-final was played between Slovenia and Croatia, and in the second, Slovakia faced the Czech Republic.
Before that though, the girls played their last group matches. In Group A, the Czech Republic beat Cyprus, who somehow kept up with the opposition to the 16th point of the first set. Then the Czechs switched gears, and dominated the rest of the set and match. Cyprus was left with only six and five points in second and third set. More interesting was the second match of this group, as Austria faced Croatia. The Austrians won the first set with with a 2-point difference, however it was the hosts from Croatia, who took the next three, and therewith secured the second place in the group and reached the semifinals. Maja Štigli? scored 24 points for the Croatian national team.
In Group B Israel did not offer any real resistance to Slovenia, as they managed to score only 27 points in the three sets combined, despite the fact that Slovenia played their reserves in the second and third sets. More interesting was the second game where Hungary and Slovakia matched up. Slightly more convincing in the serve-reception and more effective in the attack were the Hungarians as they took the first set. Then Slovakia began to serve better and also improved their attack. Deana Valentova (19 points) and Alexandra Fricova (20 points) were leading the pack.
As second in group B, Slovakia faced the first from group A in the semifinal, which was the Czech Republic with three relatively smooth wins. This is also why the Czech team was considered the favorite before the meeting. However, to the surprise of the majority, the Slovakian team won relatively easy. Slovakia did not want to leave anything to chance and played their game, receiving the most resistance only until the middle of the first set. The Czechs gathered only 12 and 16 points in the second and third set. Most of all was the serve-reception that let the Czechs down, as they received 14 aces and had only a 24% success rate in the attack, which was definitely not enough to win even a set. On the other side of the net, Alexandra Fricova and Deana Valentova led their team with scoring 17 points each. What contributed to the success of the Slovakians was revealed by Nina Babjakova, assistant to the Slovakian national team after the match: “After several years of failures against the Czech team, this time we were very well prepared mentally and tactically. We knew we had to put pressure on our opponents throughout the game and keep our game up until the very end. “
The second semifinal also came to many as a surprise with Croatia’s victory, who took advantage of playing at home and “rise like a phoenix from the ashes” after they lost the first set fairly easy. In the second set the hosts managed to win with a minimum difference (27:25) and kept improving their performance to beat the Slovenian women in the third with the same score as their opponents beat them in the first set (25-16). If the first set was dominated by Slovenia, then the remaining three were by Croatia. Alongside better serve-reception, they also improved their hitting in which Ana Burilovi? and Mara Štigli? (18 and 16 points) were particularly successful. “I am proud of our team, especially because last time around we lost twice to Slovenia,” Croatia’s captain Tea Bakic said after the meeting. The relief after the victory was also heard in the words of the Croatian coach Miodrag Stojakovic: “We have reached the finals going the more difficult way, but we did it. The moments of joy will be short though, as there is still a lot of work left. We have a new day ahead of us and a new match in which we want to secure the ticket to the European Championship.”
Herewith, Slovenia will have to settle for playing the bronze medal match on the last day of the tournament and look for their chance in the second round qualifiers in April. Croatia and Slovakia will try to get there through this Middle European Championship, of course, by winning the final match.
Photo Credit: Croatian Volleyball Federation