Modena, Italy, June 22, 2018 - “The first game is always difficult, but this weekend is great preparation for the finals as we play three great teams. The team is feeling good and we are in a good way for Lille.” The words of top scoring Stephen Boyer as France take their eleventh win 3-2 (25-21, 23-25, 26-28, 25-20, 15-12). With their two sets in the bag, their opposition from the United States of America get the single point they needed to secure their place at the finals as well.
France have now won seven matches in a row at world level major tournaments for the first time since 2015 and Laurent Tillie will please pleased at the whole team effort. Stephen Boyer was again the go-to guy as he scored 19 attacks and two blocks while Earvin Ngapeth got 15 points and Nicolas Le Goff 10. With France shuffling their pack to give game time to most of their team the points we well spread among the attackers.
With the Americans making a large number of errors in the match (nearly double that of France) it was the pressure applied by the Les Bleus that was the key to their win here. While Jenia Grebennikov did the work in defence and service reception to give his team the perfect platform to keep the scoreboard ticking over while all enjoyed the distribution of setter Benjamin Toniutti.
After this the United States still lead the head-to-head in major world level competitions 20-13 but fell to their first defeat in six matches.
Matt Anderson is USA's top scorer (now on 149 points) and led the way with 23 points followed by Aaron Russell with 21.
USA and France had both won 10 matches in the VNL before today, the most of all teams, with the European side just ahead on ranking points due to having a better margin in the set scores. Up next for these two teams is Russia for the USA while France takes on hosts Italy.
With France hosting the Final Six they have a spot guaranteed and this release of pressure seemed to play into their hands as they stormed to a strong start in the first set and found themselves at set point in no time. They thought they had taken it 25-19 but a successful challenge by USA coach John Speraw kept the teams on the court until USA had 22 at which time Stephen Boyer wiped off the block to give France a 1-0 lead.
USA got off to a frantic start establishing a six point lead in the second, but back came France who took six on the bounce off the Toniutti serve to level at 13-13. Ngapeth was on fire for France and briefly moved past Boyer as top scorer in the match taking numerous key points. But with Anderson regularly hitting at 110kmph+ in attack, it was he who snuck the USA over the line to take it 25-23 - at the third time of asking.
The third was one dominated by side-out with neither team able to establish any kind of significant lead (8-8, 16-16). With the USA just able to edge ahead, it was their “conductor” Micah Christenson who stepped up on match point and served an ace right into the corner deep at position five. Two sets means one point for the overall standing and that secured USAs place in the Final Six in Lille in the first week of July.
The fourth was all about France, they got ahead early and controlled the set making sure they were able to side out early each time to give the USA no chance to catch up. They could have won it by more, but eventually a Nicolas Le Goff winner levelled the match at 2-2.
Into the decider and Barthélémy Chinenyeze was on and scoring early for France while Kevin Tille kept his place after coming on for Earvin Ngapeth late in the fourth. It was 8-5 at the turnaround and USA called a time-out with the key message being to be more aggressive.
At 9-6 there was the rally of the match, won by Anderson after some scramble from both sides, which ended up with the USA opposite sat on the floor as he watched the ball land just out by his side.
The next went to France and cue coach John Speraw for another passionate time-out delivery demanding his team be more fearless. With France seeming to play with more freedom there was little that the USA could do as Stephen Boyer was delivered the ball and he took his twenty first point of the match wiping off the block to end it 15-12.
We will find out soon enough if these two will face each other again in the 2018 Volleyball Nations League, but if this is a sign of things to come then fingers crossed!