Azerbaijan’s dream of a historic #EuroVolleyW medal was a short lived one. The hosts caught a promising start to the bronze medal match with Turkey but they could not keep that same pace for long and their opponents eventually stormed to a 3-1 victory (22-25, 25-21, 25-14, 25-8) to silence an almost sell-out crowd in attendance at the National Gymnastics Arena for the second day in a row. As a result, Turkey celebrated their third European Championship medal in history – to go with the silver and bronze they won in 2003 and 2011, respectively. This is quite an achievement for a team, which had such a rough start to the tournament. Azerbaijan, on the other hand, have to be content with fourth place, thus equalling their result from the 2005 edition and what they achieved at the European Games two years ago as well.
After their ‘heart-breaking’ loss to the Netherlands in the semi-finals, Azerbaijan took for one last time to the court of the iconic National Gymnastics Arena, chasing their first-ever European Championship medal. Turkey were the opponent standing on the other side of the net – and Azerbaijan had to erase memories from two painful losses they had suffered to the ‘Sultans of the Net’ when hosting the inaugural European Games in 2015. Back then, Turkey won 3-0 in the pool and 3-2 in the semis, before taking gold – as Azerbaijan had to be content with a disappointing fourth place.
The President of the Republic of Azerbaijan, Mr Ilham Aliyev, paid one more visit to the 2017 women’s EuroVolley hoping to share with thousands in attendance a historic moment for the country’s Volleyball and sports family. The match started at a relatively slow pace with either side able to break away until Azerbaijan finally did so shortly after the second technical time-out (19-16) with the help of their star player Polina Rahimova. Turkey responded swiftly (20-19) but Azerbaijan did not tremble and resumed their march towards a 25-22 win.
Turkey rushed to a 6-2 lead in the early stages of the second set before two consecutive aces by Rahimova levelled the count at 7-7. Azerbaijan eventually edged ahead at 9-8 on a second tempo attack by middle blocker Kseniya Poznyak but Turkey were up to the challenge – as Gözde Kirdar and Neriman Özsoy set the tempo of their game and helped level the match (25-21) and stay in contention for the third European Championship medal in Turkish history.
Turkey had a rough start to the tournament last week losing two matches in a row in their pool before pulling out a 3-1 victory over Ukraine to stay ‘alive’ in the competition, but they improved with every match – with the only exception being Saturday’s semi-final with Serbia – and that was evident in the bronze medal game as well. A sound overall performance produced a compelling 16-8 lead for the players coached by Giovanni Guidetti as Azerbaijan, on the other hand, made too many mistakes and even Rahimova was far less effective than earlier in the match. Azerbaijan’s coach Faig Garayev substituted Rahimova and a few more players from his starting six – but to no avail as Turkey comfortably cruised to a 25-14 win.
At this stage, Azerbaijan had no other option than to fight back if they wanted to fulfil their dream of a historic European Championship medal on home soil – and the audience was likely to play a role as well in an effort not to miss out on such opportunity. However, the players of Azerbaijan looked kind of ‘frozen’ as they quickly trailed 0-5 in the fourth set and even the loud support from the stands could not help the hosts change the course of the game (2-8). Turkey realised they were getting closer to the achievement of their goal and continued to push as much as they could – and they were rewarded for their efforts as anything they attempted worked out just fine and produced a massive 25-8 score to seal their 3-1 victory.
Gözde Kirdar, player of Turkey: “Actually it was a really hard tournament for us. We played very good games and bad games; we fought a lot in some of the matches whereas in others we did not do quite the same. Yesterday it was a very bad game for us; we did not fight at all but in the end we reacted very well. This bronze medal is so important for our country, for ourselves – I am so proud of this team. This was my last game with the national team, so I am happy to finish with a medal. Thank you everyone!”
Giovanni Guidetti, head coach of Turkey: “I am really happy for my players – especially for some of them, for whom this was probably the last match with the national team. We started our season with the dream of winning a medal – and we grabbed the medal in the end. Therefore, this result is very important for us, for the players, for the Federation – and the Volleyball fans in Turkey as well. This is my first year with Team Turkey, so this is a very good start.”