By Tom Pilcher
LONDON (Reuters) - Defending Olympic champions France turned the Basketball Arena into a Parisien party on Friday as they overawed Croatia for a place in the final against three-times runners-up Sweden, desperate for an elusive gold.
The French play did not always match the sparkling performance of their many supporters as they handed twice champions Croatia their first defeat of the tournament, winning 25-22 in pedestrian fashion after a superb start.
Earlier Sweden, seeking a first gold medal having finished second at the last three Olympic Games they have appeared at, produced a more workmanlike display based on their stout defense to edge Hungary 27-26.
While the first semi-final had a more frenetic climax it was only until the French showed up at the Olympic Park's new handball venue, following Wednesday's switch from the Copper Box, that the atmosphere really became super-charged.
An explosive first five minutes by the world champions had their fans in raptures despite the game being far from over and the team rode the wave of support.
Goalkeeper Thierry Omeyer, demure and serene after the victory, was a picture of emotion on the court as cries of "Titi" echoed around the arena each time he made a save.
So often did the former world player of the year frustrate Croatia by using any part of his frame to keep out the Balkan nation, that halfway through the second half even the venue announcer was referring to him by his nickname Titi.
"It's awesome to be able to play in front of so many French supporters. We try and use it to our advantage," Omeyer told Reuters, glowing in his baggy lime green goalie top.
French journalists, not used to seeing such support outside of their land, looked at each other in bewilderment at the noise but the atmosphere was certainly no excuse for Croatia's straight-talking Ivano Balic.
"Handball games are always loud like this. There was no pressure. You should play in my country, then you will see pressure. They throw bricks at you," he told Reuters.
Hype and expectation clearly follow France and Croatia, whereas Sweden enjoy a slightly easier ride, according to their match-winning shotstopper Mattias Andersson.
BETTER AND BETTER
Andersson barely set foot on court against Denmark in the quarter-finals but put on a dominant display to keep his side ahead throughout, making the game's vital save with just over a minute to go as Hungary pressed for an equalizer.
Gergely Harsanyi weaved in from the right and with the goal gaping, the oncoming Andersson did a star jump, the ball flicked off him and then disappeared behind the net. With that Hungary's chance had vanished too.
Andersson was just as composed after the game as during it, though he admitted Sweden's progress following an average qualifying stage where they finished third was a huge bonus.
"It's great, it's something nobody had expected for this tournament. But each game we get better and better," he told Reuters.
They will have to get a lot better to stand a chance of dethroning France in what is becoming their very own palace but Niclas Ekberg said there was no reason why a win on Sunday would not be possible.
"The semi-final was tough and so was the quarter-final. We're ready. We can take 60 minutes more," the Swede said.
Sweden will need the 60 minutes of their lives to win the country's first handball gold medal on their seventh Games appearance, having previously bagged three silvers from 1992-2000.
Hungary will also be hopeful of turning the form book on its head when they face Croatia, the four-times fourth-placed finishers desperate for a first men's handball medal.
If substitute goalkeeper Venio Losert's predictions are right they will leave London a very happy team indeed.
"We are going to win the next match," he told Reuters.
(Editing by Alison Williams)