Osaka, Japan, June 8, 2018 - Artur Szalpuk led Poland with 24 points as they found winning form again, beating Italy 3-2 (25-17, 21-25, 25-17, 29-31, 15-10) as third-round men's action in the FIVB Volleyball Nations League kicked off on Friday.
In a match where fortunes and form chopped and changed throughout, it was the Poles who held their nerve in the decider, clawing their way in front after some gripping rallies - particularly in that marathon fourth set.
Szalpuk seemed to take it upon himself to be the difference and the wing spiker contributed 21 kills to the cause. He was well supported by middle blocker Mateusz Bieniek with 14 points, including three blocks.
Opposite spiker Gabriele Nelli was the star for the Italians with 25 points of his own, while wing spiker Filippo Lanza was another player in fine form with 15 points for the beaten brigade.
After two rounds of the VNL, these two nations boasted records that were close - 5-1 for Poland and 4-2 for the Italians - and their all-time head-to-head record at world level events sat at 10-9 to the Poles.
That they both arrived in Japan fresh from upset losses - Poland to the Germans 3-1 and Italy to Argentina 3-0 - added a sense of urgency as round three kicked off.
The intensity of play so far in the VNL was reflected in the Italians' decision to leave leading scorer Ivan Zaytsev (118 points) and fellow star hitter Osmany Juantorena out of the trip to Japan, keeping them fresh perhaps for the final run into the finals. The bad news for Poland has been the loss of top-scorer Michal Kubiak (68 points) for 30 to 60 days, the outside hitter battling to clear up chronic conjunctivitis.
Poland needed someone to step into the breach - and Szalpuk was that man.
It was the Poles who settled into stride quickest, breezing through the first set with Piotr Nowakowski commanding the net with three out of his team's four blocks for the period. He'd end the game with five.
Poland have huge size at the net - and still have 22-year-old middle blocker Bartlomiej Lemanski lurking on the sidelines at 217cm. So the trick is finding a way past their wall-like defence. Nelli was the man who did the most damage for the Italians - almost eye-to-eye with the Poles at 210cms himself.
It was neck-and-neck all the way before the Poles (now 6-1) just edged their rivals in the concluding set. It's safe to say that with Japan and Bulgaria to come, they'll be looking for a clean sweep of matches in Osaka, and to secure their place in the VNL finals as soon as possible.