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From Russia eight-love

Russian Pavel Abramov in action
Tokyo, Japan, November 29, 2007.- Most teams at the World Cup would be satisfied – not to say delighted -- with a podium finish to qualify for the 2008 Olympic Games.
 
 Not Russia.
 
 But Russia is not like most teams – and with a perfect 8-0 win-loss record heading into the final phase there is only one thing on their minds: Gold.
 
 “All we need is to play like a team, to concentrate and at the same time feel relaxed and enjoy the game,” says team member Pavel Abramov.
 
 “Until now, with a 100 per cent record, we are satisfied with the performance of the team – but we can improve.”
 
 After two rest days, the World Cup resumes on Friday. Russia leads the standings at 8-0, followed by Brazil (7-1), Bulgaria (6-2) and the United States (6-2), with only the top three qualifying for the Beijing Olympics.
 
 Russia will complete their schedule against Bulgaria on Friday, Brazil on Saturday and USA on Sunday – a situation Abramov describes as “like a playoff”.
 
 He also feels there is room for improvement in the Russian team despite the fact they have dropped only one set during those eight victories.
 
 “Sometimes the opponent was not so strong for us and it is hard to give 100 per cent in these matches, but when our team played against a strong opponent like Spain or Puerto Rico I think we played good – against Spain very good. But still I believe we can improve.”
 
 Speaking after a team practice on Thursday afternoon, Abramov adds: “The mood is good but now our opponents will be stronger than we are used to playing against here in this tournament. Tomorrow (Friday) is Bulgaria. Lately we played good against them and the last matches we were able to get the victory. I believe and I hope that tomorrow it will stay the same.
 
 “After that we play against Brazil and USA. These three matches are very important for us. It is like a playoff or something.
 
“These matches are always hard for our team, so this time I believe that we have a big chance to take the gold medal.”
 
 The chief characteristics of the Russian play are the fireball serves, a mighty block and one of the best liberos in the business in Alexey Verbov. This explosive cocktail has blown away all-comers to date, notably European champions Spain, and intimidated some with its relentless power and precision.
 
 Abramov adds: “Many teams are afraid of our team and many players are frightened of our block, for example. I know that -- but not all the teams, unfortunately.
 
 “I believe that Bulgaria and USA have something of this kind, they find something frightening about us, because lately we played good against them.
 
 “Against Brazil we lost all our last matches and we need a victory, so I really hope it will be the first victory for many years.”
 
 Apart from the fearsome serving, spiking and blocking, another notable aspect of the team is the changing mood of the players: one minute deadly serious in keeping with the stereotype image of the former Soviet Union sports machines, the next laughing and joking around.
 
 “Now it is different,” says Abramov. “Playing with stone faces…now it is not about all our team. We have really funny guys on the court like Verbov, for example, and of course that makes the public like us more and this is good for us. We have some players that play with a stone face but it is up to every player.
 
 “Now I think the behaviour on the court has changed and we can play emotionally, we can smile or show our disappointment with something; it is not like it was in the Soviet Union. It has changed.”
 
 What has not changed is the World Cup form of Russia and before that the Soviet Union – five gold medals in eight previous appearances and in pole position for a sixth come Sunday.
  
 

 

  
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