Jiangmen, China, June 23, 2018 - Srecko Lisinac led a balanced Serbia past a gallant Japan and into the finals of the FIVB Volleyball Nations League on Saturday.
With Japan having only pride to play for, there was an expectation that the pool 18 contest would be a one-sided affair but Serbia were pushed during the high-standard spectacle before eventually prevailing 3-1 (26-28, 35-33, 25-21, 25-18).
Lisinac top-scored with 17 points - including five blocks - and he had support from a number of teammates, notably Marko Ivovic (14 points) and Aleksandar Atanasijevic (13 points).
With consecutive victories in China, Serbia clinched a finals berth having notched their 10th win overall and they continued a long domination of Japan at the major world level winning for the 10th straight time since 2006.
Japan's slim hopes of a finals appearance faded with a loss to China on Friday but they fought gamely and were led by Issei Otake who scored a game-high 19 points and Tatsuya Fukuzawa (18 points).
Serbia survived a first set stutter and found themselves in grave danger in the second stanza before pulling out an epic set and then stamping their class on the contest. It looked like a lopsided match would ensue when Serbia raced out of the blocks scoring eight of the first nine points with powerful blockers Lisinac and Nikola Mijailovic impregnable at the net as a rattled Japan were in danger of being blown away.
A high-flying Ivovic was getting in on the fun as Serbia's firepower proved irresistible and Japan seemingly could only hit the scoreboard through rare errors from their red-hot opponent. Aerial brilliance from Masahiro Yanagida coupled with resolute blocking from Fukuzawa engineered a Japanese fightback but the hole looked too deep.
Every time Japan came within striking distance, Serbia countered with blistering blows through Ivovic and Drazen Luburic. Cunning serving from Fukuzawa followed by Haku Ri tied the scores at 22 apiece as an unexpected thrilling backend of the first set was unfolding.
A gritty Japan saved two set points and inspired play from Otake propelled the underdogs to an unexpected first set triumph much to the disbelief of a stunned Serbia.
Japan continued their successful tactic of targeting the blockers as points were traded to start the second set. A frustrated Serbia continued to misfire marked by the waywardness of Mijailovic, whose slumping fortunes saw him substituted mid-set for Uros Kovacevic in a bid to spark the Europeans out of their spiral.
It did the trick as Serbia regrouped as the set headed to an astounding stretch during a pulsating stanza lasting 41 minutes - just shy of the longest in the VNL. Japan had numerous chances to grab a stranglehold of the contest but could not convert five set points, while a shaky Serbia too blew numerous chances including through service errors.
Finally, on their seventh attempt, Serbia wrapped up the thrilling second set through an Atanasijevic spike to spark hearty celebrations highlighted by a fired up Kovacevic roaring to the thrilled crowd.
Serbia's renewed momentum carried over to the third set as they attacked Japan's tentative serve with Atanasijevic menacing around the court. Continuing the script, Japan kept fighting back to get within striking distance as another memorable tight set loomed.
However, Serbia had all the answers highlighted at 20-17 by an astonishing retrieval from Nikola Jovovic followed by a deft Ivovic flick resulting in an eventual spike from Lisinac as the world number six had stunningly rediscovered their electric best.
Armed with a decisive 2-1 advantage, Serbia hoped to seal their place in the VNL finals and, finally, they overwhelmed Japan who ran out of puff. A blistering blow from Ivovic wrapped up the result sparking celebration from Serbia knowing they had booked their ticket to France.
Japan finishes their campaign against Canada on Sunday, while Serbia plays hosts China.