Rotterdam, Netherlands, June 7, 2018 - Yvon Belien and Celeste Plak inspired a brilliant Netherlands fightback as they came from two sets down to beat Serbia 3-2 (15-25, 19-25, 29-27, 25-17, 20-18) in a tie breaker in a breathtaking FIVB women's Nations League match in Rotterdam.
With the gap between the sides just three points prior to this crucial match, many were expecting a close battle in Rotterdam, and it didn't disappoint. The visiting Serbians knew that victory would take them back up to second in the standings and they started like a train with their reception, serving, passing and power too much for the Dutch in the opening two-and-a-half sets.
But Jamie Morrison's inspired substitutions - the head coach threw on Celeste Plak, Femke Stoltenborg and Juliet Lohuis - changed the complexion of the game as the Netherlands produced an astonishing comeback. They saved three match points in the third set and another in the breaker to seal a two-point win as they remain on course for the Final Round.
The Dutch, who were utterly outclassed in the opening two sets with Lonneka Sloetjes virtually shut down, turned to Belien, Plak, Stoltenborg and the magnificent skipper Maret Balkestein to dig themselves out of a giant hole. Belien's sharp shooting saw her top score with 17 points, including six massive blocks, while Plak notched 12 points and Balkestein 14 as the Dutch turned the tables on Serbia to move to 9&3 in the VNL.
Tijana Boskovic was razor sharp once again for Serbia with another monumental display as she chipped in with 35 points - including four blocks - to keep up her tally of having scored at least 20 points in each of Serbia's matches so far. Jovana Stevanovic (11 points), Milena Rasic (19 points) and Bojana Milenkovic (9 points) all had big games, but Zoran Terzic will be alarmed at how his side slumped to just a third VNL defeat after being in such a strong position.
Serbia started on the front foot and scorched into a huge 8-2 lead with Rasic dominating from serve and Stevanovic providing the kills to put the visitors virtually out of sight in the opening set. Zoran Terzic's side beat the Dutch 3-1 in last year's European Championship final and they were beginning to motor clear; Yvon Belien was a culprit for numerous Dutch errors in the opener while Boskovic's razor sharp spikes helped seal the set in emphatic fashion, 25-15.
The Netherlands were far more competitive in set two, but they still looked jaded from their five-set loss to Italy the previous evening with Serbia taking advantage of every Dutch error. Despite trailing at the first technical timeout, six consecutive points on the Jelena Blagojevic serve proved the turning point as the Balkan side ran riot. Rasic came up with her fourth ace of the match, while Boskovic's power was proving too much. The Serbian opposite's 17th point of the match wrapped up the set 25-19 with the Dutch looking shellshocked.
The Dutch were in danger of being blown away but they were much better in the third set as replacements Femke Stoltenborg and Celeste Plak changed the tide. At 16-12 ahead, Serbia looked on course for a crushing straight-sets win, but Plak struck three crucial points to drag the Dutch back from the brink and, after Serbia coach Terzic was given a yellow card for dissent, the hosts showed real fighting spirit to save three match points - Plak saving two of them. The hosts had their tails up and took the set 29-27 thanks to an uncharacteristic missed spike from Boskovic.
Game on in Rotterdam!
The momentum shift was sizeable. Suddenly it was wave after wave of Dutch attacks and Serbia were under siege. Stoltenborg made two massive blocks and a couple of impressive dump shots, while Plak was blazing down spikes with regularity with the Dutch looking a different team without Sloetjes. Boskovic was now being blocked with almost every spike attempt as Serbia's cohesion from the first two sets deserted them. Juliet Lohuis fired a few aces and a deft touch by Belien (25-17) took the match to a breaker.
Both sides lost tie-breaks to Italy this week, and it was the visitors who were to taste defeat in a five-setter once again. Belien was now at her sumptuous best as the Dutch roared clear, but back came the visitors once more. Both sides had opportunities to win it with Serbia unable to convert a fourth match point at 16-15 in front. And finally, after some more Balkestein brilliance and Lohuis' fourth block winner, Anne Buijs sealed a memorable win as the Dutch finally secured the spoils on their sixth match point. Despite being outspiked, the hosts won 19 block points to Serbia's 10 which proved the difference between the sides as the Netherlands go five points clear of sixth-placed Italy.