By Jared Grellet
Russia have come close to beating Croatia once already at the Samsung U18 European Championship and will now have the belief that they can go that one step further when the two sides meet in Saturday's second semi-final.
Croatia and Russia arrive at the final four of the tournament in contrasting circumstances.
For Croatia it has been something akin to a walk in the park. Convincingly qualifying for the quarter-finals as the top team from Group F with a game to spare, the Croats then eased past Italy in the semis with a limited input from Dario Saric to reach this junction.
Five of their six wins have been by more than 10 points, and one could argue that their winning record would still be intact, had Saric and Mislav Brzoja taken to the court against Bulgaria.
Russia, on the other hand, has had to fight every step of the way to make it this far. Four of their five wins have come by five or less points and a big final quarter against Turkey in their final second round game was required just to get them into the final eight. Again in the quarters, Russia left it up until the final 30 seconds before assuring that their time at the tournament lasted for at least one more game.
When these two teams first met back in Liepaja during the first round, Russia had the match of Croatia for most of the game and arguably have gone the closest to troubling the Balkan nation, even going as far as temporarily neutralising Saric through the use of the 2.20m underutilised big man, Andrey Desyatnikov.
However, the main problem for Russia in that game, was once more an issue for them against Spain in their quarter-final, as they went long periods in the final quarter without scoring. Against, Croatia it denied them the chance to win, whilst against Spain, it gave their opponents the opportunity to come back and almost snatch a win.
It now remains to be seen if Russian head coach Aleksandr Chernov can correctly address this problem in the limited time available to him.
It will also be interesting to see if the Russians learned anything from the tactics employed by Italy against Croatia in the semi-finals. Italy had an obvious plan and that was to get Saric into foul trouble early on, limiting his input on the game. However, with the first part of the plan accomplished, the Italians failed to follow through and take advantage, by actually giving up the lead with Saric off the court.
The ploy may now have actually worked in the favour of the Croats who stood up to the challenge thrown down at them and showed that they can get the job done without the full-time services of the most influential player in the tournament.
Two players who stepped up higher than most in that quarter-final win to give themselves confidence boosts against Italy were guard Dominik Mavra and center Karlo Zganec. The former finished with nine points, six rebounds and six assists, whilst the latter had a personal-best haul at the tournament of 15 points and 11 rebounds.
If Saric again finds his impact to be limited, Croatian coach Jaksa Vulic can take comfort in the knowledge that he has players who can step up to help his captain Mislav Brzoja get the job done.