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BARCELONA, Spain, Jan 26 (Reuters) - Croatia completed a hat-trick of bronze medals in as many major tournaments when they beat neighbours Slovenia 31-26 on Saturday to finish third in the 2013 handball world championship.
Having finished third at EURO 2012 and the London Olympics, Croatia emulated the achievement with a mature performance against a youthful Slovenian team who did well to reach the last four in Spain.
The Slovenians, whose best previous finish was 10th, held their own in the first half but could not cope with Croatia's speed and talent in the second, with playmaker Domagoj Duvnjak and right wing Ivan Cupic leading the way for the 2003 world champions.
They scored eight goals each and engineered most of the others as Croatia's slender 14-13 halftime lead swelled after the interval, many of their fast breaks in what is a pacy seven-a-side sport coming from superb goalkeeping by Mirko Alilovic.
Croatia knocked out holders and Olympic champions France in the quarter-finals before losing to Denmark in the semis and coach Slavko Goluza said it took some effort to lift the team after that disappointing defeat.
"The primary objective here was to reach the last 16 but we might look back with regret on our below-par performance against Denmark after we played such enthralling handball throughout the tournament," he told Croatian television.
"But I can only congratulate the players for raising their spirits and showing character to finish on the podium, we can go home with our heads high knowing we gave everything we had," he said.
In Sunday's final, Spain face European champions Denmark, the only unbeaten team in the tournament, with the host nation eager to erase the memories of the EURO 2012 semi-final defeat to the Scandinavians. (Writing by Zoran Milosavljevic in Belgrade; Editing by Alison Wildey)