Sofia, Bulgaria, June 1, 2018 - Egor Kliuka inspired Russia to their 3rd FIVB men's Nations League victory in 4 games as they saw off Australia in 4 sets (25-18, 25-19, 18-25, 25-22) in the Bulgarian capital Sofia.
Kliuka is a maverick talent for Russia, capable of producing shots akin to French stalwart Earvin Ngapeth, and he was sumptuous in Sofia with 17 points, including 14 spikes from 26 attempts, as Russia stumbled to victory in this opening Pool 5 clash against a determined Australia outfit.
Mark Lebedew's Australian underdogs gave it their all throughout the contest, and had the game's top scorer Lincoln Williams (23 points) and Jordan Richards (13 points) as their sharp shooters, but they didn't quite have the artistry or the power to force a deciding set against the Russians, who were a long way from their best.
Russia, who began week 2 just inside the top 6, looked in cruise control when they took the opening 2 sets, but they dropped off in the 3rd set to allow the Volleyroos back into the match, before recovering their poise to win the 4th.
Russia win but fail to impress
This Pool 5 contest, with Australia 12 places below Russia at 16th in the world rankings, wasn't expected to pose an obstacle for the European champions, but it was much tougher than anticipated.
Russia, who were beaten 3-0 by another title contender Poland last week which was sandwiched between 3-0 victories against Canada and South Korea, cruised through the opening 2 sets - thanks in part to a 6-point burst after being level at 12-12 in the opener - but it wasn't plain sailing after that.
Sergey Shlyapnikov's men, who were without 8 key players, went to sleep in the 3rd set and paid the price. Leading 8-7 at the first technical timeout, Russia then lost control of the match with Richards and Williams beginning to boss things from spike range, and the exemplary duo eventually grabbed the set to halve the deficit for Australia.
Russia also trailed 8-2 at the first technical timeout in the 4th with a decider suddenly looking probable, but the likes of Kliuka, Muserskiy, Konstantin Bakun and Anton Karpukhov - who produced a magnificent block to drag Russia back to within a point at 11-10 - inspired them to a brilliant comeback as they won in 4 sets to breathe a huge sigh of relief.
Shlyapnikov's men also face Serbia and Bulgaria in Pool 5 and will be expected to record a clean sweep in Sofia, but they'll have to improve on this performance.
Kliuka stars as Russian blockers dominate
Russia have a formidable-looking team, with Kliuka providing the stardust from out wide, while Dmitriy Muserskiy - who had the highest block average per set and the best spike success rate in the Nations League prior to this match - has considerable aura in the middle of the court.
Kliuka was electric. A wonderful block from the spike specialist to put Russia 12-8 in front in the 2nd set reminded everyone of his defensive qualities, he then pounced late on to make it 23-19 before another Kliuka block sealed the set. But it was an outrageous left-handed spike to put his side 3-2 in front in the 3rd set that got pulses racing - a trick few players can pull off.
The Russian blockers - with Muserskiy contributing - also dominated. Ilia Vlasov (4 from 9 attempts) and Igor Philippov (3 from 6 attempts) made up the giant Russian wall that will surely keep more teams at bay in this Nations League.
Australian revival falls short
The Volleyroos had a dreadful record against Russia in men's world-level volleyball meetings heading into this match having lost all 10 of their encounters, but they will be buoyed by their 3rd set dominance.
Williams' serves were unreturnable in the 3rd and Richards was landing spikes from all angles, but it was the introduction of Arshdeep Dosanjh by Australia coach Lebedew that changed the course of dominance at the net. Dosanjh disrupted Russia's blockers and grabbed 2 blocks from 2 attempts to steer Australia to the set.
But despite a fantastic effort, Australia are now winless in 4 VNL matches and without a single point.
Egor Kliuka may have been outscored by a commendable performance from Australia's Lincoln Williams, but he played the big points when his country needed him most. 17 points, including 14 spikes and 2 blocks, from one of the most talented players in the men's game.