Walbrzych, Poland, June 14, 2018 - With a spot at the Final 6 out of the question for both teams, this was their last match and it was very much a game for pride. From the start of the second set it was the Russian block that made the difference, with Angelina Lazarenko taking six of her 18 points in this way as she top scored from middle. A large part of the reason that the match went to Russia 3-2 (19-25, 25-14, 25-16, 23-25, 15-10).
Having lost four of their last five matches, this win will be a nice bonus for Russia as the world turns its attention to their country for the Football World Cup. Their coach Vadim Pankov will be pleased with his teams blocking performance, outscoring Japan 20-7 in this area of the game. Others who made telling contributions were Natalia Malykh with 16 points, and Irina Voronkova and Anna Kotikova with 15.
Japan's last three VNL matches have now gone to a fifth set, but the only one they were able to take was against the Dominican Republic yesterday. Kumi Nakada will again take positives, but she would rather the win and points. Risa Shinnabe and Ai Kurogo top scored with 15 points.
Russia had won five out of the last six matches at this level against Japan and with a healthy 28-18 head to head lead they were surely the favourites. That being said both teams were on W7-L7 before the match so it was not going to be easy based on current form. With this result though, Russia finish on 23 points above Japan on 20.
Some unwanted history went to Japan as well today, as they became the first nation to lose 300 matches at major world level.
The hall was filled with some lively music but a fairly subdued atmosphere to begin. Known for their defence, it was this that kept Japan in it through the early stages with their Libero, Kotoe Inoue, on her “A game” from the off. Natalia Malykh started strongly for Russia, continuing where she left off against Poland – when she was the only player who really put in a performance.
At 5-1 Russia were up for it, but there was a whole other feeling when their advantage was down to one at the first technical. The shift in momentum continued further as it was the Asian champions who lead at the second interval (16-14). A competitive and close set proved destined to go the way of Japan at 20-16, and it was a lovely moment when birthday girl Ai Kurogo (who is 20 today) finished it for them 25-19.
Russia came out a different blocking team in the second set and with Irina Voronkova starting to find her rhythm in attack Russia built a 13-6 lead. It was one way traffic and soon they were up by 10 points. Kurogo took a couple of big points to stop serving runs, and without this it could have been a lot worse, but the set finished 25-14.
With that set Russia also kept up their impressive record of having won at least one set in 45 of their last 46 major world level fixtures versus Japan.
Poland played next so the hall was gradually filling and the home fans will be pleased to have seen a different Russian team yesterday. As with the third they got right into the flow of things, captain Ekaterina Lyubushkina ever impressive with the block as well.
This pressure caused Japan to have to rethink things, but that just caused some unforced errors on their side of the net. An ace from Risa Shinnabe gave Japan some hope, but soon after Malykh finished the set with a stonking hit to the floor.
The fourth set was much closer with the teams trading right through until the late teens. With Russia going predominantly through 4 and Japan through 2 with their attacks, one half of the net was definitely busier. Needing to win it to force their third tiebreak of the weekend, Japan did lead it most of the way with Russia struggling to catch up. At 24-21 things got a little closer than Japan would have liked, including a thrilling 23 second rally worth watching. Kanami Tashiro got the job done though having come off the bench earlier in the match.
Japan got off to a poor start in the decider losing the first two points and falling further behind at the turnaround (8-3). As the we reached double figures, Japan could only mange half that, despite the best efforts of Kurogo. It was the same five points that mattered at the end, with it taking all of Japans defensive qualities to reach 10 points. Fittingly it was Russia’s top scorer in the competition, Irina Voronkova who scored the final ball with a wipe off the block.
So that is it for Russia and Japan in the 2018 Volleyball Nations League as their journeys come to an end – but they will both be back.