By Toby Davis
LONDON (Reuters) - Latin flair will meet Eastern European steel in the Olympic men's volleyball final as Brazil and Russia both won their semi-final encounters on Friday to set up a gold-medal showdown between the two top-ranked teams.
Russia overcame underdogs Bulgaria 3-1 in a testing four-set encounter, before Brazil entered the simmering Earls Court arena to romp past Italy 3-0 with the backing of some raucous samba supporters.
Neither side was made to work unduly hard for their victories, but both came through their semi-finals with differing degrees of swagger and panache.
Brazil were full of skill and verve, defending with gravity-defying athleticism, while Russia, led by two giants in Dmitriy Muserskiy and Maxim Mikhaylov, were ruthlessly efficient.
For Brazil it will be their third successive final and an opportunity to reclaim the title they won in Athens and ceded four years ago in Beijing.
Brazil fans had lined the streets en-route to the Earls Court arena from early in the afternoon, clamoring for any spare tickets for the evening match.
By the time the twice champions stepped on court, the arena was populated with hordes of green and yellow clad supporters who created a deafening din that lasted from the first point to the last.
The match was only a contest in fleeting moments. After edging the first set the world's highest ranked team streaked away with the second and rounded off the match comfortably in the third.
"That is the best we have played all tournament. I think it was our best match in the last two years," Brazil's Bruno Rezende said following their 25-21 25-12 25-21 win.
"We knew they would serve well but we kept our heads and stayed patient tonight."
If Brazil were cheered into the final then Russia had to battle a strongly partisan Bulgarian support base to edge past their semi-final opponents.
Only a spattering of Russian fans made it to the afternoon match to watch their physically imposing team steamroller their way into a two-set lead.
It had looked like it would be over in a blink of an eye, but Bulgaria dug in, briefly holding up the Russian advance, before their resistance faltered for the final time.
Russia have gone 32 years since they won men's volleyball gold and have lost two finals in the intervening years.
They now carry the weight and expectation of the country squarely on their shoulders.
"It's our country's dream, fans' dream, everybody's dream to win gold at the Olympics," the 2.02 meter Mikhaylov said after his team had wrapped up a 25-21 25-15 23-25 25-23 victory.
In Mikhaylov, the Russians possess a fearsome weapon, who proved to be their principal assassin, scoring 25 of his team's 98 points.
Brazil are less reliant on stature and according to libero Sergio Santos are not scared of the Russian attack.
"I am 1.84 and I feel taller than them," Santos said about the statuesque Russian frontline.
In reaching the final, Russia ended Bulgaria's Olympic journey that had taken them far beyond expectations.
Their pre-Games preparations had been plunged into disarray when coach Radostin Stoychev and two top players quit following a row with the national federation, but if the chaos had taken its toll it was hard to see how.
They had stormed through to the semi-finals sending fans at home in Bulgaria into a state of delirium, with the team drawing comparisons with the country's soccer side that qualified for the World Cup semi-finals in 1994.
"Of course this was a very big problem for the Bulgarian national team because we lost two of our best players in Andrey Zhekov and Matey Kaziyski," Bulgaria's Georgi Bratoev said.
"All teams need players like them and it would have been easier if they were here."
(Editing by Greg Stutchbury)