At some point this stopped being just a match between the two best teams in the tournament and became the kind of experience every sports fan dreams about. This match had everything: it had double extra time and in each period of that there was a reffing controversy, it had a lead that changed hands, momentum that swung and, in the end, it had heroes.
Those heroes could be found throughout the Montenegro side. From the goalkeeper Sonja Barjaktarovic who played the full eighty minutes and made 17 saves to Milena Knezevic who found the net 10 times, and then there was Katarina Bulatovic who was on court for over an hour and whose own performance summed up that of her team: bruised, defiant, victorious.
But on the losing side too, there were some great performances. Anja Edin, again, was a focus for so much in defence and attack although she’ll be disappointed with only a 4/10 shooting return and Ida Alstad led with 11 goals, including three in the second half of the first period of extra time to overturn what had looked like an unassailable Norwegian lead. But some players were muted, in particular, Linn Jorum Sulland could only manage three goals from eight shots.
At the final hooter, Heidi Loke remonstrated with the officials for her two minute suspension which had been the catalyst for Montenegro’s final, final charge for the title – but then Montenegro could counter that but for the very harsh two minutes given to Katarina Bulatovic in the first extra time there would have been no opportunity for Alstad’s equalising heroics.
Type ‘Montenegro’ into google news right now and all you see is women’s handball. There is nothing else on the ticker. Perhaps the place closes on Sunday. What isn’t in doubt is how much this means to both the players on the court and the nation they represent.
And that’s before the impact on women’s handball that somebody, at last, has beaten Norway.
If you feel up to it, you can watch it all again here:
If it’s all getting a bit predictable it’s also getting a bit more impressive each time. Norway will once again contest a major final as favourites and this time they do so having destroyed Hungary with one of the most dominant performances they will ever have produced against quality opposition. Midway through the first half of their semi final they overturned a 10:7 deficit with a 9:2 run of scoring and then utterly controlled the second half. They could rotate the bench, showboat in attack and when Katrine Lunde Haraldsen took a whack in the face in the act of saving (one of 11 saves she made) they could relax in the knowledge that she could leave the court unworried. Anja Edin was strong in both attack and defence and Heidi Loke looked like the world’s greatest player but, terrifyingly, neither of them looked head and shoulders above their colleagues, quality-wise.I’d backed Norway to win by 2. They won by 11.
The other semi final, on the other hand, was a copper-bottomed classic as neighbours and former sharers of a sole identity Serbia and Montenegro did battle. It was a tough match with plenty of bite, especially on the fringes of the D but it was also a game whose outcome was never certain until the end.
Serbia led 14:13 at the break and with a bit of luck and concentration would have had a greater advantage. They had themselves come back from 9:5 down. The bullets fired by Biljana Filipovic inspiring yet another great team performance. Montenegro dug deep, played the refs to the limit and produced some smart shooting of their own – Milana Kzenevic finishing with 9 goals. In the end the team with greater depth pulled away and just held on.
In today’s final the crowd won’t be an issue and but on head to head Norway look just too strong. A Montenegro victory would be a beautiful result but they will need to work the refs effectively and shut down Norway in every aspect of the game – and do that for 60 minutes. Norway can always go to Plan B, then C, D and E as required. The bookies have Norway at 9/20 to win … but for all I think Norway should win if I were to place a bet I might be tempted to go for Montenegro.
My prediction, for what it’s worth, is Norway by 2. The match starts at 3pm (UK) – live on YouTube with commentary from the always excellent Paul Bray.
From now on in Euro 2012, everything matters. Today sees the semi finals and tomorrow the final. We’ve come a long way together but now our journey is at an end. Norway and Montenegro face Hungary and Serbia respectively. There is intrigue, drama and a whiff of the political ahead.Norway lost their last group match with Denmark coming from behind in the second half to win 35:33. This will have no bearing on today’s game. The same is also true of Hungary’s loss to Russia. Both rested players and took to the court with one eye on the semi final. It no doubt hurt to lose but it will hurt more today.
In Katrine Lunde Haraldsen and Éva Kiss we have, statistically, the two best keepers in the tournament. It’s worth noting that Kiss is the Hungarian ‘second’ keeper behind Orsolya Herr in terms of tournament shots faced. Hungary have varied between using one keeper for virtually the whole match to a more even rotation – when concentration and stamina are such core requirements as against Norway I expect to see both keepers employed evenly. Haraldsen will presumably be glued to the Norway goal. So, solid keeping will need to be backed up by Gibraltar-rock defence. And, in Hungary’s case, the need to foul relentlessly. They will need to neutralise Linn Jorum Sulland, Heidi Loke and the rest. And somehow stop the fast-breaks. Their own attack will also need to be operating on a level it’s not always achieved this tournament and they must surely need a stand-out performance from Anita Görbicz who has so far scored only 14 times from open play in six games.
My prediction is that Norway will win by 2.
Meanwhile the other match sees what would have been a domestic dispute played out as a proper international. Serbia face Montenegro. The partisan home favourites against the Olympic silver-medallists. In exactly the same way as the Serb men over-achieved in their own tournament earlier this year so the women have come together and found ways to win matches. They don’t possess any notable stars who dominate the others but play well as a team, even without their coach reaching out to grab attractive opponents. Their win over France (without which they could not have qualified) featured a 52% save ratio from Katarina Tomašević and they will need something similar today – and combine that with the same ‘grind out’ approach. It may not be pretty. Montenegro have Euro 2012’s top scorer in Katarina Bulatović backed up by Jovanka Radicevic. The way for them to win would seem to be to play to their offensive strengths, draw as many defensive fouls as possible and leave Serbia with too much to do. I expect random acts of violence from both teams.
My prediction is that Montenegro will win by 3.
Both matches are live over on YouTube. Norway v Hungary starts at 1.30pm (UK) and Serbia v Montenegro is at 4pm. It all takes place at the 20,000 capacity Kombank Arena in Belgrade.
The day of the quarter finals ended in high drama with the match between Sweden and Russia being settled at the very end of extra time by two penalties. Both were legitimate (as much as you can tell in real time on an internet stream) but that didn’t stop the sense of injustice for the victims. Sweden were the unlucky ones – going down 31:30 after a compelling match. They chose often to defend with five on the line and one out blocking – and in extra time the Russians exploited that gap. There really wasn’t much to choose between them though and this really was a high quality game.
The most one-sided of the quarter finals was, possibly surprisingly, the one between France and Norway. The Norwegians owned a 17:5 half time lead and could afford to only win the second half by a goal, running out 32:19 winners. In the other matches, the non-European adventure is over as Japan couldn’t hold a half time lead against Denmark, losing 25:31 and Romania were too strong throughout for Hungary.
The semi finals will be played on 25 August and will be Romania v Denmark and Russia v Norway.
As we enter the last couple of blocks of games there are still five quarter places up for grabs with only Sweden, Romania and France having confirmed their passage, although if, as expected, Russia beat Kazakhstan tonight they will be in the last eight and Montenegro, the hosts, will be playing for placings only.
Last night, Montenegro had a great chance to put their destiny in their own hands. They led Romania 14-9 at the break and led well into the latter stages before their structure collapsed and their shooting became more wild. Romania won 24-22 in the end and celebrated as if the title was theirs, rather than a place in the knock out stages.
Elsewhere Paraguay, Kazakhstan, DR Congo, Czech Republic, Uruguay and Portugal are now playing for pride.
There are four matches today, one from each group (all times UK):
17:15 Paraguay v Hungary; Kazakhstan v Russia
19:30 Czech Republic v Denmark; Portugal v Norway
And they can be seen live here.
Still want to see some reasonably top-level handball in the narrow window between the end of the Olympics and the start of the club season? Well, cast your internet feed in the direction of Montenegro as the official site of the IHF Women’s Youth World Championship will be live-streaming the games from this year’s competition which starts today.
There have been three iterations of this tournament so far and, remarkably, the nine medals available in that time have been won by eight different countries with only Denmark (winners in 2006, bronze in 2008) claiming two. The current holders are Sweden whereas France have lost in the bronze medal match in every single edition of the tournament.
Twenty countries are competing this time around beginning with a round-robin of four groups of five with the top two in each progressing to the quarter finals. Day 1 sees eight matches, most of which are probably foregone conclusions (e.g. Netherlands are 1/5000 to beat Paraguay) but the match between Portugal and Angola (1500 BST) looks intriguing. As for who will win the tournament I’m going for the hosts who seem to have a slightly easier group than some other big-name countries and will then fly to the final inspired by the exploits of their senior counterparts in London.
And France will lose the bronze medal match as that’s the law in these championships.
The official page with link to live stream is here.
And the wiki page with the fixtures laid our nicely is here.
Pre-tournament favourites Norway in the end proved too strong for a tenacious Montenegro side in the women’s final last night. The medal was Montenegro’s first-ever Olympic medal. Norway struggled to find their rhythm – missing more shots from open play than they scored – but in the end had too much class and emerged 26:23 winners.
The bronze medal match was a classic. Two periods of extra time were required to separate South Korea and Spain after the Koreans converted a fast-break half a second too late to take the match in normal time. The final score was 31:29 to Spain as the Koreans notably tired throughout the four demanding periods of additional time.
So, the final standings are:
GOLD – Norway, SILVER – Montenegro, BRONZE – Spain
Norway v Montenegro, 8.30pm (BBC Olympics 6, Sky Channel 455 and online)
It’s the day of reckoning for Norway and Montenegro: the prize-winning veterans and the newest nation and the block. Norway are, as the commentators never tire of saying, the current Olympic, World and European champions. Montenegro, on the other hand, are not.
Montenegro finished 11th in last year’s World Championship, losing 28-27 to Norway in the group stages. Nor have they troubled the medals in their two European championship appearances. That said. all but three of their team play for Budućnost who just so happen to have won the EHF Champions League in 2012, knocking out the Norwegian giants Larvik on the way. It goes without saying that for Montenegro to be in with a shout they will need Bojana Popovic (playing her final match before retirement) to be at the top of her game, controlling the attacks, and for Katarina Bulatovic to get opportunities to bullet in her 7m shots. The defence we can expect to be physical.
Norway haven’t really looked like champions so far. They qualified fourth out of their group and then had to overturn a half-time deficit to see off Brazil in the quarter finals. The Koreans who they beat by 6 in the semi final were plagued by injuries. But they are in the final and the title is theirs to defend. If Montenegro need to rely on their steady build-ups and cool heads Norway will surely need to get their ridiculously effective fast-breaks to work (8/10 saw off Brazil, against Korea it was a mere 2/3). With that weapon they may stun Montenegro into hurrying their otherwise methodical game. A repeat of Katrine Haraldsen’s 52% save percentage probably wouldn’t go amiss either.
Google Translate has a Montenegrin newspaper describing their team’s appearance in the final as being the most significant achievement in their country’s short history; when Norway won the World Championship in 2011 it broke television viewing records. This game matters and it should be a final that lives up to it.
My prediction? Norway by 3.
In the end the difference was only a goal but that doesn’t really reflect how much Montenegro were the better team throughout the match. At one point Spain had a shot percentage of 70% (they ended on 60%) but were still behind in the scoreboard – because fundamentally if you’re giving up possession before shooting then you’re going to struggle to win the match.
It was impressive to see how steady Montenegro took the match. They score 4/5 on fast breaks but turned down the opportunity to send the ball quickly down more times than that – preferring to build and then send in a bullet. As well as scoring 6/9 Bojana Popovic always seemed to be on hand to calm things down. The rockets fired in by Katarina Bulatovic, especially from the 7m line, also helped the cause.
Spain on the other hand looked flustered although, as said, their shooting was mostly on the money. They turned over possession too often and could never settle on a pattern to unlock the Montenegrin defence. It was particularly sad at the end to see their goalkeeper Silvia Jimenez unconsolable after such an excellent shot-stopping performance that wasn’t mirrored by the offense.
These are amazing times to be a Montenegrin women’s handball supporter. After Budućnost’s Champions League victory now the national side stand of the brink of an Olympic gold medal. The small matter of Norway stands between them and the title. The Norwegians in the crowd cheered Montenegro, whether out of desire to see the smaller nation win or a feeling that it would be easier for their side I don’t know, but the Beijing winners will have to be on top form to overcome the country that has fought past France and Spain in consecutive rounds.