The Russian Olympic Committee (ROC) women’s handball team set up a shot at defending their Olympic title with an epic semi-final win against Norway in Tokyo, recovering from the loss of star pivot Anna Sen to an early red card.
Meeting in a repeat of the semi-final in Rio five years ago – a clash which went to overtime before Russia prevailed – the ROC team and their Norwegian rivals produced a similarly pulsating encounter which was settled by a solitary point as the Russians won 27-26 on Friday.
In another twist of fate, the ROC team will take on France in Sunday’s gold medal showdown, in what will be a rematch of their Rio clash in 2016 – when Russia won 22-19.
Taking on the gutsy Norwegians at the Yoyogi National Gymnasium, the ROC team was forced to contend with the loss of influential star Sen – a veteran of the 2016 gold medal-winning team – when she was dismissed inside the first 15 minutes.
Sen caught opponent Nora Moerk in the face with her elbow, with officials giving the 6ft 1in Russian her marching orders after consulting video replays of the incident.
Sen’s dismissal meant the ROC team were one woman short for two minutes before a replacement was allowed on.
Sen was forced to sit out the remainder of the game, watching on tearfully from behind a towel and collapsing on her knees on court after her teammates got the job done in her absence.
ROC star Anna Vyakhireva summed up her team’s mammoth efforts after the match.
“First of all, I want to express my respect to the Norwegians – it was a real battle,” said the 26-year-old, another member of the team which clinched gold in Rio.
“I’m proud of the girls. We left everything on court. Thank God it ended this way. But it’s not over yet…
“I don’t remember what happened five years ago (at the Rio Olympics). Now I’m a little bit emotional. I’m just proud and happy.
“I’m only thinking about the final the day after tomorrow,” added Vyakhireva, who top-scored for her team with nine goals against the Norwegians.
Alexey Alekseev’s ROC team have set up another Olympic final with France, who overcame Sweden 29-27 in their semi-final.
The ROC stars have reached this stage by emerging from Group B in the preliminary round, drawing their opening game with Brazil before being well beaten by Sweden in the following game.
They then bounced back to defeat Hungary, edge past France, and beat Spain to reach the knockout stages.
The ROC team then overcame Montenegro in the quarter-finals before their thriller against Norway on Friday.
With a silver already guaranteed, the Russian team will try to top the podium in Japan – just as they did five years ago in Brazil.
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