Les Bleus reach maiden Olympic final

The French handball team reached the country's best result ever in an Olympic tournament: qualifying for the final. Les Bleus beat Croatia 25-23 in the semi-final and will play Iceland, who defeated Spain, for the gold medal.


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Tournament favourites France beat defending champions Croatia 25-23 in the men's Olympic handball semi-final here Friday to set up a clash with either Iceland or Spain in the gold medal decider.

A gritty Croatian side desperate to become the first men's team to defend the Olympic title gave its all in a bruising encounter but could not overcome France, the form team of the tournament in Beijing.

For France, making the final will help erase painful memories of Athens, when they were also red-hot favourites after a five-match winning streak but crashed out in the quarter-finals.

Both sides applied crunching defence and exchanged tit-for-tat goals, with three goals the maximum lead throughout an armwrestle of a match where the lead changed hands four times.

Croatia had the better of the early exchanges, after which France briefly pulled three goals clear two minutes from time, giving their opponents little time to make up the deficit.

Croatian Zlako Horvat scored the first goal, but Olivier Girault hit back with a penalty for France that gave Croat goalkeeper Mirko Alilovic no chance.

The teams continued to probe each other defenses but neither could pull ahead and the scores were locked 4-4 after 10 minutes with French star Nikola Karabatic yet to register his first goal.

The 24-year-old soon put himself on the scoreboard but it was not enough to stop Croatia gaining the edge 9-6 as right wing Mirza Dzomba scored his 33rd goal of the tournament and pivot Igor Vori crashed through the French defence.

France took the lead for the first time at 11-10 in the 23rd minute, inspired by a Cedric Burdet steal in the Croatian area.

Girault had the chance to extend the lead when he broke through but hit the crossbar with only the goalie to beat, drawing groans from the French fans.

At half-time, the match remained evenly poised at 12-11 to France.

Daniel Narcisse, who scored nine goals in the quarter-final, opened his account straight after the break to give France a two-goal advantage but that was the largest either team could manage until the last two minutes.

As the game entered its closing stages, French centre back Bertrand Gille urged his team's fans to lift their support.

The players responded, holding onto their lead as the Croats threw everything they had at them.

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