Lille, France, July 4, 2018 - Dimitry Volkov's influential display helped European champions Russia to the perfect start in the men's FIVB Volleyball Nations League Finals with a 3-1 victory (25-18, 25-23, 22-25, 25-17) over world champions Poland in Lille's Stade Pierre-Mauroy, France.
Russia came into this Pool B match as the form side and marginal favourites having finished second in the Nations League preliminary round with 11 wins from 15 matches, and they had too much class throughout with Volkov's all-court game supplemented by other stirring performances from Dmitriy Muserskiy and Maxim Mikhaylov. Poland came into the Final Six on a poor run of form having lost 4 of their last 6 regular season games - even needing to beat Australia in their final outing to secure sixth spot - and despite a third-set rally and a fine performance from Bartosz Kurek, they were outplayed and their semifinal hopes now look precarious.
The Russians are like a well-oiled machine and their block defence - which yielded 12 points in the match - and potent serving consistently frustrated the Poles who couldn't get a foothold in the game. Volkov top-scored for the European champions with 17 points - 3 coming from blocks and 3 from serves - while Muserskiy, who went into the game as the VNL's 5th top scorer, also contributed to a wonderful team display with Russia's fabled block defence haunting their eastern European rivals.
Poland seem to be a long way away from the side that disposed of the Russians 3-0 in their VNL group stage meeting. That win ended a 4-match losing run against the Russians but there was to be no repeat in Lille as they failed to fathom a route past their opponents' sturdy rearguard. Kurek was, however, outstanding, chipping in with a game-high 23 points, and despite taking the third set, they were outclassed with Artur Szalpuk (12 points) the only other Pole to reach double figures.
Russia lost 3-0 to France to concede top spot in their last regular season game, but there was no danger of another straight-sets defeat as they tore into the Poles from the off. A brilliant point from Muserskiy put them 9-6 in front before a Kurek-inspired Polish rally brought the world champions level at 13-13. But Russia rediscovered their mojo and breezed clear with their blockers having continuous joy. A Maciej Muzaj error on set point gifted Russia the set, 25-18.
The second set wasn't as one-sided with Poland getting Kurek into spike position on numerous occasions. Szalpuk's point made it 12-12 with Poland showing signs of life, but the Russians seem to have a knack of moving through the gears when under pressure and they demonstrated that again. They ground out an 18-14 lead and held the Poles at bay with Muserskiy wrapping up the second set, 25-23, with a powerful spike.
Poland were staring down the barrel of a straight-sets defeat, but to their credit they were terrific in the third set. Vital Heynen's men subdued the heavy Russian artillery and nullified their blockers with the imperious Kurek having a field day. Kurek, who notched 22 spikes throughout the match, put the Poles 3 clear at 12-9 and a superb Jakub Kochanowski ace maintained that cushion. Bartlomiej Lemanski's impeccable block made it 16-12 and from then on the set was never in doubt. Egor Kliuka's poor serve on set point handed Poland a way back into the match, 25-22.
But any hopes of a miraculous Polish turnaround were quashed early on in the 4th set as the Russian blockers rebuilt their impenetrable wall. Muserskiy began a series of stout blocks as Russia went in 8-4 in front at the first technical timeout. The favourites were in a hurry and it didn't take them long to put their rivals to bed and record their 33rd win in 51 outings against Poland. A Dmitry Kovalev ace brought up match point before Kliuka finished things off, 25-17.
Russia have failed to reach the podium in their last 7 world-level tournaments but they now have a golden opportunity to put that right. Another victory over the United States in Pool B will take them through to the semifinals as top seeds.