Sofia, Bulgaria, June 3, 2018 - After playing the full 15 sets in Sofia, Serbia will be pleased to be leaving Bulgaria with three victories. Usually top scorers will be the key players of match, but it was half way through the 4th set against Australia that this game was decided as Serbia reverted to their strongest line-up bringing on captain Marko Ivovic, their top scorer Drazen Luburic and star middle Srecko Lisinac. All combined to dominate the 5th set and secure another 3-2 victory (25-23, 25-19, 20-25, 25-27, 15-9) meaning after week 2 Serbia sit in 6th position in the standings.
Drazen Luburic had been the star man for Serbia in their two previous 5 set wins against Bulgaria and Russia, but in his place came Dusan Petkovic who ran hot and cold but ended up top scoring across the match with 18 points. In a much changed starting line-up, Serbia appeared to have control of the match, but if it wasn’t for bringing in their leading names they may well have let it slip away.
Australia were on a high after their first Volleyball Nations League victory yesterday against Bulgaria and started strongly. It took until 18-17 for Serbia to lead in the first set with the Aussie side leading by three at each technical timeout. After this there was not the zip and vigour that is to be expected from the 'Volleyroos'. However that soon changed with the introduction of some of their bench players. Jordan Richards (16) and Thomas Hodges (15) both came in mid way through the second set and yet finished just short of top scorer Max Staples (17).
Prior to the match the head-to-head stood at 5-1 to Serbia, but Australia did win the last encounter (in five sets) in 2015. Australia also seemed to like playing against European opposition, with six of their last eight victories coming against teams from the old continent. In week three, Serbia head to France while Australia can next be seen in action in Canada.
Across the first set Serbia may not have got any aces, or blocks for that matter, but some tactical serving from the Balkan side by choosing to avoid Australia’s libero Luke Perry and by pinning position five meant Williams struggled to get into the game. In the end a service error presented the first set to Serbia 25-23.
There was only one team in it for the first part of the second set, with Serbia leading 10-4 and then 16-9. This was when Australia’s coach Mark Lebedew rang the changes with Richards and Hodges coming in. He also had some harsh words to say as his team gathered for the second technical, most of which cannot be printed but the final sentence was “Look each other in the eye and play the game.” It seemed to work with his team coming out with more intent and getting back to within 4 points (14-18) but that was as close as they got.
Serbia have lost at least one set in their last 10 major world level fixtures, so it was not all over. The first point of the third was scrappy and went to Australia, so when the first referee called Serbia for a screen at 1-1 the team from down under started to believe.
With setter Arshdeep Dosanjh also starting, that meant three players were starting a set for the first time in the game. There was more confidence and flow in the Australian game that resulted in a 16-13 lead at the second technical. In a clear difference in approach, while Serbia were going for power, the 'Volleyroos' were finding a greater variety of ways to take the points, often catching the Balkan defence on their heels.
At 20-17, Thomas Hodges adjusted to a wide set and found the floor. Serbia challenged for a foot fault, more out of hope then expectation, but it turned out to be a wise decision with a few millimetres of his shoe touching the attack line. Australian composure was there in abundance though and a service error by substitute Ivan Kostic meant Serbia again failed to take a win in straight sets.
The match continued in the same vain, so at 3-6 Serbian Coach Nikola Grbić introduced his captain Marko Ivovic and there was an immediate impact. It was still close at double figures but with Jordan Richards relishing his time on court and his enthusiasm rubbing off on his team-mates, they built a lead and maintained it right through to the twenties.
Trailing by three, in came the big guns as Drazen Luburic and Srecko Lisinac were introduced. But it was Ivovic who was raising his game but in the end a mega rally resulted in a mistake from Nikola Mijailovic and we were into a 5th set, again.
With Serbia starting with their so-called strongest team, and their captain on the service line they raced to three point lead. Ivovic was dominant in all areas of the game and as he excelled he dragged his team with him. Serbia came back from 5-10 down against Bulgaria on Friday, so when they led by the same score they were more focused than ever.
A challenge at 13-9 appeared to give Australia a lifeline, but the officials disagreed with what most others appeared to see and up stepped Luburic who served an ace to make it three five set wins in three days for Serbia in the Bulgarian capital.