Fukuoka, Japan, November 15, 2009 – Italy took the gold medal at the FIVB Women’s World Grand Champions Cup 2009 on Sunday, but they had to fight very, very hard to get it. Italy overcame Japan 32-30, 25-22, 24-26, 25-18 in a nail-biting two-hour match at Fukuoka's Marine Messe. Italy finished the tournament unbeaten in five matches, while Japan finished in fourth place with only two wins.
Francesca Piccinini was the top scorer for Italy with 18 points, followed by Antonella Del Core and Simona Gioli with 17 each. Erika Araki top-scored for Japan with 20 points.
Any uncertainty Japan may have experienced after their loss to the Dominican Republic on Saturday was blown away with a very confident early period against the European champions. Maiko Sakashita was at the center of Japan's attack, blasting down five big spikes to steer her team into an 8-5 lead at the first technical timeout. Japan's defense was also brilliant, with their blocking much improved. Suddenly, it was Italy under pressure. With Sakashita running rampant, captain Erika Araki also contributing well and the defense almost impenetrable, Japan were looking very comfortable, and they found themselves five points ahead at the second TTO. But the situation quickly reversed itself thanks to some clinical spiking by the Italians, notably Lucia Bosetti and Francesca Piccinini. Suddenly, Italy were ahead, but there was still a lot of Volleyball left in the set as the two teams went into an intense battle. Japan earned three setpoints when a spike by Piccinini hit the net and curled out of play. Sakashita – who finished with 10 points in the set – was playing out of her skin, but Japan couldn't overcome the Italians. Japan saved four setpoints and had another three of their own. Finally, Sakashita's dominance ended. She put a shot narrowly wide and was then blocked, handing the first set to the Italians.
Italy came out firing on all cylinders at the start of the second set and raced into a 5-1 lead. Japan staged a mini-fightback with some amazing defense that eventually saw Piccinini fire a shot long. Japan kept the pressure on and drew level at 9-9 when Bosetti fired long. But a block on Mai Yamaguchi, a defensive mess-up and a wide spike by Yamaguchi opened up a three-point gap again. Saori Kimura helped Japan fight back and the two teams were level at 19. A spike by Piccinini and two errors by Kimura put Japan on the back foot again and a block by Eleonora Lo Bianco on Sakashita handed the Italians setpoint, which Piccinini converted with another good spike.
The Italians led 8-6 at the first TTO of the third set, despite making four errors. Japan, meanwhile, were only able to gain one point from spiking in the same period. Blocks by Piccinini on Yamaguchi and Simona Gioli on Sakashita, and an over-hit ball by Sakashita put the Italians four points up. Spikes by Mizuho Ishida and Kimura, and a service ace by Yuki Shoji brought the Japanese to within one point of Italy, but by the second TTO, the Italians had recovered a three-point lead. But not for long. Two good Araki spikes and a long hit by Antonella Del Core had the teams level again at 16-16. The two teams battled on, giving little ground. Japan drew level again at 20-20 when Gioli sent a shot down the right line wide, and they were ahead when Piccinini sent a shot long. Then it was 21-21, 22-22 – Japan had two setpoints at 24-22 – and 24-24. Araki thundered down a spike and Japan had setpoint again. Bosetti then rose to plant a big spike, but Araki rose with her, stopped her and Japan had pulled a set back. The tension was erupting in Fukuoka's Marine Messe.
And it was more of the same in the fourth set. Italy moved out to a 6-3 lead, but Kimura and Ishida – who was introduced in the third set to great effect – brought the scores level at 7-7. A netted serve by Shoji gave the Italians the advantage at the first TTO, but a brilliantly placed shot into the corner by Kimura, an unreturned serve by Yoshie Takeshita – having another awesome game as setter – and a crushing blow by Araki after great defense by Ishida turned things around for Japan. They extended their lead to four points, but good Italian blocking and two strikes by Piccinini brought the scores level again. A Gioli dunk put Italy ahead at the second TTO. Two good shots by Del Core moved Italy into a two-point lead, which they extended to five. Japan were fighting desperately, but couldn't hold the Italians off. Del Core made it 23-18, before blocking Araki for matchpoint. Bosetti then came up with the killer block on Kimura and it was all over.
Cue the mass celebrations.