Lille, France, July 7, 2018 - Stephen Boyer's superb 31-point haul sent France into the final of the inaugural FIVB men's Nations League after they withheld a brilliant United States comeback to win in five sets 3-2 (25-18, 25-17, 23-25, 24-26, 15-13) in a gripping semi-final at Lille's Stade Pierre-Mauroy.
This was another high quality contest between two sides who have lit up a wonderful Nations League, but it was France who showed the greater verve and variety in attack with Boyer and Earvin Ngapeth displaying their trademark firepower as the US struggled to cope early on. The visitors were outplayed in the opening two sets but produced an incredible comeback to take the next two, but their hopes of reaching a first world-level final since the 2014 World League were finally ended. France, on the other hand, are now guaranteed a first podium finish in a major other than the World League for the first time since 2002.
The French came into this one on the back of a thumping 3-0 win over Serbia on Friday and can boast an astonishing attacking arsenal with the Final Six top scorer Ngapeth - who had 40 prior to this match - and Boyer the main threats. It was Boyer this time who outscored France's main star Ngapeth, who chipped in with 12 points, although the French blockers can take enormous credit for their victory. Kevin Le Roux won 4 block points while Nicolas Le Goff (9 points) was at his sturdy, menacing best at the net and Thibault Rossard (9 points) served impeccably.
United States are one of four nations (Brazil, Italy and Russia the others) to have won at least four of the previous five volleyball majors, but they came into this one on the back of three defeats in five VNL matches having lost 3-0 to Russia on Friday. Despite top scorer Matthew Anderson (23 points) and Taylor Sander (20 points) providing plenty of threat out wide, their middle was completely shut down in the first two sets with Maxwell Holt and David Smith struggling to find any gaps. They responded magnificently with Anderson and substitute Aaron Russell outstanding, but they were ultimately put away with their service game not up to their usual standards.
Les Bleus won in five sets when these sides met in the preliminary round but they were in no mood to endure such a tough encounter this time. They tore into the Americans from the off and led 8-6 at the first technical timeout. Rossard's wonderful ace made it 10-7 before the likes of Boyer and Ngapeth took over. Le Goff's mesmeric block stretched the gap to 6 points (17-11) and another unsung hero in this fluid French team, Kevin Le Roux, wrapped up the set 25-18.
The US, who led France 20-13 in the sides' head-to-head record prior to this semi-final, started the second set much better, but they were soon on the backfoot with Boyer's ace serve making it 8-6 at the first technical timeout. The French serves were proving far too potent for John Speraw's out-of-sorts American side with Rossard firing down another, and the likes of Le Goff and Le Roux continued to shut the door on the visitors with some well-timed blocks. France were a class apart and a trademark Boyer spike clinched the set 25-17 and left the US with a mountain to climb.
The Americans had taken at least one set off France in their last 22 matches - a run stretching all the way back to 1990 - and Speraw threw on Aaron Russell for the ineffective Benjamin Patch which ensured that that impressive run continued. Russell was outstanding in the third set, while Anderson also started to find his range with some powerful spikes. A wonderful Anderson block made it 20-16 to the US and they saw out the set 25-23 to give themselves hope of a famous comeback.
The fourth set was a tense affair with the Americans scrapping hard to try and force a decider, with Anderson epitomising their fighting spirit. Sander's explosive spike had them 12-10 in front, but a controversial point for the French, when Kevin Tillie could have easily been penalised for a foot fault, edged them 14-13 ahead. France built up a 19-14 lead but Anderson was on a mission for the US and they produced a stirring comeback, saving two match points before Micah Christenson's ace serve gave them set point. And the US managed to take it 26-24 to send this incredible match into a decider.
France raced into a 5-1 lead in the 5th but the US were not prepared to let this match go and Sander came up with some huge points to make it 7-7. But a couple of timely points from Le Goff edged France in front again and they just about held off the American charge as Boyer sent down a spike to seal the set 15-13 and send France into tomorrow's final. The 2015 World Cup winners pushed them hard, but Les Bleus held on to make it four wins in five against the US.