As I wrote precisely one week ago, any team would be in trouble if they underestimate Puerto Rico. The Caribbeans enjoyed their most spectacular evening in Poland and scored a stunning 3-1 win over Italy, the disappointment of the World Championship.
The late Saturday match practically nailed the Italian coffin. The underperforming Mauro Berruto‘s side kind of reached the bottom and today will have to fight for their lives against the 2014 World League winners USA. With several changes in his usual roster, the bald specialist perhaps thought last night’s affair could be a good practice for his boys. Emanuele Birarelli was left on the bench, while Simone Buti did not make it to the match group at all. The young middle blockers Matteo Piano and Simone Anzani were granted court time instead. The game of the reigning European vice-champions was so scattered and chaotic that I am sure Italian critics have a lot to write about these days.
David Aleman made one change in comparison to the starting line-up he’s chosen in his last three encounters. The team captain Hector Soto, now an outside hitter, sat on the bench and Jackson Rivera, later to be one of Puerto Rico’s two best attackers against Squadra azzurra, played the whole four sets. Seizing an opportunity they had never experienced in Krakow this past week, the Central Americans played with passion and agression in the only match against a very demotivated opposition. Down 0-1 half an hour after the match started, a situation not unfamiliar for Aleman’s lads, who had still been looking for their first set in the tournament, the Puerto Ricans totally earned their comeback. Eventually they made fewer mistakes than Italy, whose superstar Ivan Zaytsev couldn’t shine and rescue his team from the ashes this time, and won three points. Thus, my choice for the game’s MVP, the athletic opposite Maurice Torres who finished with the remarkable 25 points and an attack efficiency of 51%, helped his land revenge the defeat to the same opponent at the 2010 World Championship namely in Italy. Back then Italy won 3-1, a game that was part of the tournament’s second round.
Italy’s head coach: “Puerto Rico had an outstanding performance, teaching us that when you trust in yourself, passion and will to win will make you win. They had an outstanding defence and were consistent throughout the match but that because they showed marveolus passion on the court. This is a double loss for me. It’s a huge defeat from a mentally point of view. We need to collect everything we have inside and put it against USA tomorrow.”
My pick for the game’s MVP – Maurice Torres (Puerto Rico)
Puerto Rico – Italy 3-1 (19-25, 25-19, 25-23, 25-22)
Puerto Rico: Goas 1, Jose Rivera 5, Muniz 6, Torres 27, Jackson Rivera 20, Mannix 9, Del Valle – libero, Ortiz
Italy: Baranowicz 2, Kovar 3, Piano 3, Zaytsev 15, Lanza 7, Anzani 6, Rossini – libero, Travica, Vettori 4, Parodi 10, Birarelli 6
The first game for the day sealed France’s relatively surprising, but totally deserved supremacy in Pool D. Very few had expected ten days ago that none of USA, Iran or Italy would top the standings with just one competition day left. Les Bleus are definitely a team worth cosidering when you scrutinize the 2014 World Championship participants, especially when we noticed how good they looked during the summer and in the pre-championship preparations. However, this French generation have always shown ups and downs in important tournaments, a factor that usually prevents them from making it among, let’s say, the big four. Well, with the exception of the unfinished job against Italy on the group’s second match day, Laurent Tillie and his “warriors” have completed an impressive run that might open their way, probably a bit unexpectedly, to Katowice and Lodz for the Final Six. The biggest obstacle they have to fear now is whether they can preserve this psychological and sports momentum for that long, namely the stick that has deterred the French wheel in so many tournaments.
Against USA it was again the usual weapons that decided the game in favour of the Europeans – amazing defensive skills and a good attack percentage, also in counter attack. Jenia Grebennikov, allegedly the best young libero in the world, as well as Kevin Tillie, coach Laurent’s son, were superb in defence and saved a lot of digs and opponents’ attacks. The score heroes for Les Bleus yesterday were the usual suspects, Earvin Ngapeth, whose head was focused only on his game this time, and my choice of MVP, Antonin Rouzier, with his stunning 59% attack percentage.
The match scenario for John Speraw was a very common one. Again problems with the choice for second outside hitter, the new start option Paul Lotman did not impress, unlike the game versus Puerto Rico, and the head coach had to use his second opposite, Carson Clark, in order to rotate Matthew Anderson back to his original position. Team USA have faced the exact same issue in all their matches so far, excluding the Puerto Rican walkover, and the bench could only stimulate some positive waves in the tournament opener against Belgium. Chances are USA might look fragile today in what appears as their most decisive game in Krakow so far. The way they start their games is often good and energetic, but it doesn’t take too long for the well-prepared coaches to exploit the American weaknesses in the sets to come afterwards. USA is surely in need of some urgent decisions or game changers against Italy, otherwise we might see one of the World Championship favourites catch an early flight home.
My pick for the game’s MVP – Antonin Rouzier (France)
USA – France 1-3 (25-19, 17-25, 15-25, 21-25)
USA: Christenson, Sander 14, Lee 5, Anderson 21, Lotman 4, Holt 8, E. Shoji – libero, K. Shoji, Smith 2, Clark 3
France: Toniutti 4, Ngapeth 15, Le Roux 8, Rouzier 23, Tillie 9, Le Goff 6, Grebennikov – libero, Sidibe, Marechal, Jaumel
The victorious opening set was the key for Iran’s third win at the 2014 World Championship. A hard-fought 25-23 opener saw Slobodan Kovac‘s side shake off from the initial stress that must’ve come to being after the 1-3 defeat to France on Friday. It was much easier from then on to control the game. The Red Dragons couldn’t cope with the Persian rhythm and lost the game in four sets, despite waking up in the third.
You know you are doing things right when the stats sheets confirm how good your team’s block was. 16 successful block attempts for Iran were accompanied with another impressive performance of my MVP choice, Seyed Mousavi who declined an offer from Pallavolo Modena in the Italian Serie A this season to stay at home in Iran.
Iran and Belgium are two teams that have something in common – they both often suffer from breaking their own game rhythm. The Asians can dominate a game easily and then at some point just yield to some unknown state of mental trance, resulting in losing the momentum and dropping sets. We take into consideration the fact that it is a tough group and winning 3-0 every single time is practically impossible against such opponents, but Iran seem to be taking part in longer games due to their inability to finish their job in style.
Similar things can be said about Belgium. The Europeans lack international experience and are not mentally prepared to go all the way from nearly grabbing a set to exploding in the next one. Against Iran they should’ve fought better in the second set. They only woke up in the third set, which was too little, too late, and the efforts of Sam Deroo, Belgian’s best player at this World Championship, and the substitute Gert van Walle did not suffice. Yet, thanks to the Italian fiasco, Dominic Baeyens will have another chance in a few hours to secure his nation with a second round spot. The opponent is a neighbour of theirs and a team that they beat both in the World Championship qualifiers in January and at the 2013 European Championship – the group leaders France.
My pick for the game’s MVP – Seyed Mousavi (Iran)
Belgium – Iran 1-3 (23-25, 15-25, 25-21, 20-25)
Belgium: Depestele 3, Deroo 15, Verhees 10, van den Dries 8, Verhanneman 8, van de Voorde 8, Derkoningen – libero, Coolman, Claes 1, van Walle 8, Valkiers
Iran: Marouf 6, Ghaemi 13, Mousavi 12, Ghafour 11, Mirzajanpour 13, Gholami 2, Zarif – libero, Mahmoudi 5, Ebadipour 3, Mahdavi, Tashakori 9