Hong Kong, China, May 29, 2018 - Japan rallied behind wing spiker Ai Kurogo's 16 points to beat Italy 3-2 (20-25, 25-23, 20-25, 25-23, 15-11) in a thrilling third-round clash at the 2018 FIVB Volleyball Nations League on Tuesday night.
Fortunes went back and forth and the Hong Kong Coliseum crowd roared its approval as Japan grew with authority in the later stages of the match, led by Kurogo and by fellow wing spiker Yuki Ishii with 12 points.
They had struggled at times with Italy's height and, specifically, the angles they posed but kept finding ways to win points.
Paola Egonu celebrated her return to action with 25 points for Italy, the opposite spiker reminding Italy's fans what they'd been missing with a display that was equal parts force and finesse. There were five big blocks in the opposite spiker's points total and Egonu powered Italy at the net, alongside wing spiker Miryam Sylla (12 points).
The Italy coach's charges have been slowly finding form in the inaugural VNL. After finding no joy in their first three matches, Italy rounded out round two in Suwon with 3-0 victories over Germany and hosts South Korea. The Italians were also riding a 5-0 streak against Japan coming into the clash at the Hong Kong Coliseum, with four of those wins being stretched over five sets.
But Japan rose to the challenge on Tuesday night and can now face world number one China on Wednesday with some degree of confidence - although the Hong Kong crowd are sure to swap their allegiances quickly.
These early rounds in the VNL have been so far used by most coaches as an opportunity to spread court time around and so it was with Japan's Kumi Nakada, who decided to let top-scorer Sarina Koga sit things out for the match, while Italy's top-scorer Serena Ortolani was left out of the squad entirely for the week in Hong Kong.
Koga's absence robbed the Japanese of some of their bite and with no one of Egonu's caliber to replace her the problem was always going to be where the points were going to come from. In the end they were shared between eight players - in a fantastic team effort.
Italy will meanwhile look to regain their confidence into their clash on Wednesday against Argentina, who came to Hong Kong as the only team in the VNL not to have won a match in rounds one and two, while the biggest test comes on Thursday against China.