1) What’s the significance of Croatia’s 22-19 victory over France. With both teams already qualified and resting key players the match was the equivalent of a “friendly”. One would be wise not to make too much of it. Still, a win is a win and Croatia’s win means that they will have a slightly easier opponent (Poland, instead of Denmark) in the semifinals.
2) Is it better preparation for the semifinals to play tough “win or go home“ matches or easy matches? France and Croatia had a relatively easy time of it in their main round group. Group II, however was a dogfight, with almost every match closely contested. Poland carried 0 points into the main round and needed 3 victories in 3 matches to have any chance of advancing. They did just that with convincing victories over Denmark and Serbia before squeaking out a victory in the waning seconds against Norway. Essentially, they’ve won 3 straight “elimination matches” while Croatia has been on cruise control since an opening match scare against South Korea. So, the answer to the question? It depends. In Poland’s case it’s probably helped their psyche some, but it can also be emotionally draining. For France and Croatia, it’s been a tremendous opportunity to rest their players, something both sides needed. All in all, at this level, I’d say the players will be ready for the semifinals regardless of how they got there. Being well rested is a good thing.
3) Has Didier Dinart fully recovered from his thigh injury? In Saturday’s match against Sweden, Dinart came up limp with a thigh (perhaps hamstring?) injury. He exercised on Thursday and will play in Friday’s semifinal, but whether he’s 100% or not remains to be seen.
4) What exactly is so special about Dinart anyway? Dinart’s name doesn’t show up in the score line much, but he is clearly the key to France’s excellent 5-1 defense. In the 5-1 defense Dinart plays the “3” or middle position along the 6 meter line. What make’s Dinart so effective is his ability to tie up the offensive circle runner player and at the same time step up quickly to defuse breakthrough situations and jump shots at 9 meters.
Playing the 5-1 defense helps disrupt the backcourt players and get them out of their rhythm for their jump shots, but it’s a tradeoff, in that the 5-1 is more susceptible to offensive breakthroughs. It’s all a matter of the amount of court space that you have to cover. With a 6-0 defense, 6 players are covering the arc, so the distance around the arc is split 6 ways. With a 5-1, 5 players cover the arc, so each player is responsible for a little more space on either side of him. That extra foot or two may not seem like much, but as a former defensive specialist myself, I know firsthand that just a little more quickness (or a little less ground to cover) makes all the difference when you’re guarding 1 on 1 or helping out a teammate. Dinart has that quickness and his ability to cover so much ground in the center makes it almost seem sometimes as if France is playing a 6-1 defense instead of a 5-1. If Dinart is full strength look for France to advance. But if he isn’t, Denmark’s chance are as good as France’s are.
5) Who will win? I’m banking on a France – Croatia final this Sunday. The sports books are as well. Croatia is a 4 goal favorite over Poland, while France is a 2.5 goal favorite over Denmark.