Modena, Italy, June 22, 2018 – Two of Europe’s heavyweights came face to face in the final leg of the round robin, but only Russia will be smiling tonight as they took a comfortable straight sets victory 3-0 (25-21, 25-22, 25-20) against Italy and now lead the head-to-head 31-26. That win, and the three points that come with it, means they leapfrog the USA into second position and are now guaranteed a spot at the finals in Lille.
Dmitriy Muserskiy is Russia's top scorer on 185 points (his 68.08% spiking success rate is the highest of all players) and here he did not start a set but still ended up joint top scorer for Russia in the match on 12 points, alongside Egor Kliuka. At times he was simply unplayable through the middle.
Sergei Shliapnikov has now guided Russia to six consecutive wins – the last time they achieved that feat at a world level major tournament was at the 2015 World Cup. Bigger tests will for surely come though, starting this weekend at the Pala Panini.
Russia are known as a blocking team and currently hold three of the top five positions in the “Best Blockers” chart (Dmitriy Muserskiy (25), Ilia Vlasov (22) and Anton Karpukhov (22)) and it was this area again where they proved superior - scoring 7 compared to 4 for Italy.
Italy have only lost more matches at world major level competitions against Brazil (39) than they have against Russia (and predecessors), 31. Gianlorenzo Blengini (coach of Italy) will have plenty to reflect on, but the truth is they have not been good enough in the second half of the round robin stage. Here, Ivan Zaytsev top scored with 15 points, followed by Filippo Lanza with 10, but both will not be overly pleased with their performances today.
Looking at recent form, Russia will have started the match as favourites but Italy had home advantage and needed the victory more as they were two wins behind the group of six teams currently heading for the final phase of the competition in Lille. With two more matches to come, there is still mathematically a chance for Italy but next they face table toppers France tomorrow followed by the USA on Sunday. Russia will play those same two teams in reverse but can now start planning their trip to France.
Italy got off to a strong start leading 8-5 but were pegged back to 10-9 as the Russian blocking machine started to find its rhythm. The reigning European Champions from Russia won the most recent encounter between these two at world level major tournaments 3-2 (World League in 2017) but they were keen to get the job done in less sets this time round. They accelerated through the set with Dmitry Volkov ultra effective winning it 25-21.
At the first technical of the second set it was Russia who led this time (8-5) but Simone Giannelli and Filippo Lanza forced the momentum back their way with a run of points to reach double figures first. At a crucial juncture in the set (16-14 to Italy) the Russians wanted to challenge for a block touch, however they pressed the button for ball in/out and subsequently lost the point – much to their annoyance.
Italian captain Ivan Zaytsev has always had Volleyball in his blood with his father being the legendary USSR setter Vyatcheslav Zaytsev. But he is 100% Italian and as his side’s top scorer on 121 points came to life as the second drew to a close.
But the Russians have lost only one set in their last five matches (during the 3-1 win against Iran) and were not going to give up on this one. The 5,000 strong crowd were treated to a mega rally as we reached the twenties with 27.4 seconds of pure drama bringing Russia to within a point.
Victor Poletaev took the starting opposite slot for Russia, and with Maxim Mikhaylov waiting in the wings he was keen to impress. After a serving demonstration by Dmitriy Muserskiy he did just that hitting the winning spike to snatch the set from Italy 25-22. An impressive statistic of note, during the second set Russia had an average spike height 3.35m.
The early initiative of the third went to the side in the ascendancy, but credit to Italy as they fought back much to the thrill of the attending crowd who wanted to see more. As the excitement levels rose, so the Italian team got more pumped up with Gabriele Maruotti proving the difference on multiple occasions.
Despite all their efforts the home side could not shake the Russians and back they came to lead at the second technical after a steep cross court spike by Dmitry Volkov and with that the crowd was silenced. A strong serving run from him got his side to 23, with Muserskiy faultless in attack. With him off for Libero Kabeshov for match point it was down to someone else to see Russia home and his middle counterpart Ilia Vlasov quickly obliged with a clean winner.
Cue the celebrations as Russia secured their progress to the Final six early next month.