By Anthony Boadle
RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) – Italy’s men’s volleyball team put an end to a U.S. winning streak and ousted the Americans from the Rio Games in a five-set battle on Friday to go through to the final where they will seek their first Olympic gold medal.
Italy overcame the United States 30-28 26-28 9-25 25-22 15-9 and will face twice Olympic champions and three-times silver medalists Brazil in Sunday’s title showdown.
The Brazilians avenged the loss of their 2012 London Games final to Russia in Friday’s second semi-final, overpowering the defending champions 3-0.
The Americans did not have the same luck in reverting a pool round loss to Italy, who ended a run of four straight victories by the United States as well as their bid for a fourth Olympic gold in the sport.
With unstoppable spikes and ace serves by their top scorer Ivan Zaytsev, the Italians took a hard-fought opening set.
The U.S. took the second and third sets despite a barrage of killer spikes by Osmany Juantorena, a former Cuba national team wing spiker now playing for Italy.
The Americans streaked ahead with a 15-point run in the third with their top scorers, outside hitter Matt Anderson and main server and setter Micah Christenson, having a field day.
But Italy came back to secure victory with aces by Zaytsev and Juantorena in both the fourth set and tie-breaker.
“We were on such a high in the third set, but then we had a drop in energy in the fourth and they took advantage of that,” Anderson told reporters.
U.S. coach John Speraw, who brought a young team to Rio with eight players who had never competed in the Olympics, said Italy had played the best volleyball at the Games, and he praised his players for responding to the challenges well.
“It just wasn’t enough in the end,” he said of a team that came to Rio as favorites after winning the World Cup last year.
Italian captain Emanuele Birarelli felt that the fourth set aces delivered by Zaytsev, an Italian-born standout of Russian descent, were decisive.
“Ivan had an incredible streak of serves that were the key to winning the match at the crucial moment,” he said at the post-game news conference as Italy began preparing for their third final in men’s Olympic volleyball.
At the 2012 London Games, Brazil had led Russia by two sets before dropping the next three to lose out on their bid for a second Olympic gold.
In Rio, they held firm throughout, thanks to a succession of unreturnable 110 km serves by Lipe, as they won 25-21 25-20 25-17.
(Reporting by Anthony Boadle; Editing by Meredith Mazzilli and Mark Lamport-Stokes)