Lodz, Poland, June 2, 2018 - Artur Szalpuk was the star of the show as Poland extended their perfect start to the 2018 FIVB Volleyball Nations League with a comfortable 3-0 (25-19, 25-18, 25-21) victory over China, to remain top of the men’s standings with five wins from five.
Having already beaten Korea, Russia, Canada and France in their first four games, hosts Poland came into this one as the clear favourites, and the reigning world champions didn’t disappoint in front of a boisterous crowd at the Atlas Arena.
Szalpuk is by no means a guaranteed starter for Poland, but the 23-year-old wing spiker did a superb job as coach Vital Heynen chose to rest several key players, including captain and top scorer Michal Kubiak. Szalpuk led the hosts with 16 points - including 10 in the first set alone - and he was ably assisted by Bartosz Kwolek (11 points) and Dawid Konarski (10 points) as the Poles claimed their fourth consecutive straight-sets win, for the first time since winning the world title on home soil in 2014.
Of Szalpuk’s 16 points, 14 were spikes and two were aces, while the impressive Kwolek added eight spikes and three aces. Konarski - who starred off the bench in Friday’s 3-0 win over France - contributed six spikes, three blocks and another ace.
As well as outscoring China 9-3 on serve, Poland were superb in defence, conjuring up 10 blocks compared to just two for the visitors. Their imposing middle blocker Jakub Kochanowski was responsible for half of those, and also added four spikes.
Jiang Chuan was the tournament’s top scorer heading into this match with 80 points, and he was once again China’s star performer with a match-high 18 points - including 16 spikes - even if the visitors never looked in danger of troubling their hosts.
Zhang Chen produced a fine block as China made a solid start to the opening set, but it wasn’t long before Poland began to slip through the gears, with back-to-back aces from Szalpuk giving them a 7-5 lead. The hosts served excellently throughout the opening set, racking up no fewer than five aces, while their superiority at the net soon had them into a 16-10 lead, despite a couple of fine spikes from Chuan and Rao Shuhan. Szalpuk continued to lead the Polish charge on his way to double figures in the opener, and though China briefly threatened to rally the hosts soon brought up six set points. Kwolek sent the first into the net, but Szalpuk, fittingly, squeezed an effort over to put Heynen’s side in the driving seat (25-19).
The Belgian coach was seriously unimpressed with his team’s start to the second set, however, as China raced into a 5-1 lead thanks to fine work from Chuan and Miao Ruantong. The furious Heynen called a time-out, and some choice words helped to get his men back on track; Kochanowski produced a huge spike, before combining with Konarski to shut China out at the net. Konarski also added a spike as Poland took the lead for the first time in the set at 10-9. The hosts’ serving began to make the difference once again and they soon surged clear, with Kwolek sending over a rocket of an ace at 116 kilometres per hour. The gap was soon 20-13, and while Chuan did what he could, the visitors simply couldn’t handle Poland’s outstanding collective strength. Maciej Muzaj came off the bench to round out the second set (25-18).
Fabian Drzyzga produced a neat flick early in the third set as Poland looked to put the hammer down from the off, but China appeared determined not to go out without a fight. It was nip-and-tuck throughout, with errors creeping in on both sides but Poland just about managing to keep their noses in front. Kochanowski produced a monster block to deny Chuan before Szalpuk whipped a spike right into the corner for 12-10. Chuan and Szalpuk were both vying to finish as the match’s top scorer - and while the Chinese star eventually triumphed in that particular battle, Poland held on to win by straight sets yet again, as a couple of late errors handed them both the set and the match (25-21).
The world champions therefore moved back above Brazil to top the standings with a maximum 15 points from 15. They will now be gearing up for Sunday’s big clash with neighbours Germany - the team they beat in the semi-finals of the 2014 World Championship - while China will need something special to claim their second win of the campaign against France.