Lille, France, July 8, 2018 - Maxim Mikhaylov's virtuoso display helped Russia seal the FIVB Men's Volleyball Nations League gold medal as they surged past hosts France in three sets (25-22, 25-20, 25-23) with one of the finest volleyball performances in recent years.
The inaugural VNL has been an exhilarating competition with Russia and France the best two sides across the past two months. But it was Russia who broke French hearts with a brilliant all-court display as they won their first world-level title since claiming FIVB Volleyball World League gold in 2013. France survived an epic USA fightback to win their semifinal in five sets, but it looked like those exploits had caught up with them as they were outclassed by a supremely powerful Russian outfit, who looked unstoppable when in full flow.
Russia defeated Brazil in their semifinal match in arguably the best VNL performance of the campaign, but this world-class display surpassed that as a multi-talented French outfit simply had no answer to this Russian juggernaut. Mikhaylov was breathtaking in all facets of his game, from his ace serves to his outrageous power and precision from spike range as he finished with a game-high 19 points. Egor Kliuka (10 points) was also colossal while Dmitriy Muserskiy (12 points) was a rock in the middle. Five Russian players compiled at least two block points as the French were shut out. From defence to attack, Russia were simply too good.
France - who incredibly have never won a world-level title outside of the World League, although they won that competition in two of the last three editions - did have some impressive performers with Kevin Le Roux, in particular, scoring two block points on his way to a personal haul of eight. Earvin Ngapeth may have top-scored with 16 points, but he was repeatedly snuffed out early on as France toiled. Jean Patry and Thibault Rossard produced moments of brilliance, but usual big hitter Stephen Boyer had an evening to forget.
France came into this final on the back of four straight victories over Russia, including a three-set win in the preliminary round - albeit against a weakened Russian side - but they couldn't live with the visitors in the early exchanges of the opening set. Kliuka was the star man with some impeccable serving as a slick Russia team began to dominate. Their block defence - arguably the best in the world - was too good with the French wide men Boyer and Ngapeth struggling to find a way through. Kliuka's block made it 10-5 while Mikhaylov was dominating out wide. The French grew into the set with Le Goff and Le Roux leading an impressive fightback but two huge Mikhaylov points steadied the ship and wrapped up the set, 25-22. First blood to Russia.
France took some momentum into the second set but that was almost immediately countered by another wonderful sequence of play from Sergey Shliapnikov's men. Dmitry Volkov illustrated his range of blocks and spikes and a Mikhaylov ace put the European champions 10-4 in front. Russia were on a roll and France looked dead and buried as Muserskiy gave his side a huge lead at 15-7. But the hosts dragged themselves back from obscurity to take 13 of the next 19 points to whittle Russia's lead down to 21-20, with Patry and Nicolas Le Goff providing the inspiration. But in the face of adversity, Russia remained ice cool and four straight points - including two vital Kliuka spikes and a Dmitry Kovalev ace serve on set point - handed them the set (25-20) as they moved closer to the gold medal.
France needed a response and they certainly upped the ante in the third set. Le Roux put in a mighty block and then a spike as back-to-back points made it 6-4 to the hosts. Their performance levels didn't relent and Rossard delivered some huge spikes to put the French 16-13 ahead at the second technical timeout - and on course to take the match into a 4th set. But Russia are a relentless machine and back they came to level the scores at 20-20 with a monster Mikhaylov block. France eeked out another two-point lead, but from 22-20 down, this was all about the visitors. An outrageous Muserskiy ace bamboozled the hosts before an unforced Boyer error handed Shliapnikov's men match point. And they only needed one chance as Kovalev produced a block of superlatives to deliver the gold medal to Russia amidst jubilant scenes - with the home crowd stunned. France's non-World League hoodoo goes on; Russia's five-year wait for a major title is over.