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All eyes on Cuba's opening match against Thailand

Manila, Philippines, July 1, 2005 Sharp and deadly, two-time World Grand Prix champions and Athens Olympic bronze medalists Cuba continue where they left off in Italy when they take on Thailand in the opening match of the Manila Leg of the second round of the 2005 World Grand Prix Preliminary Round at the Philsports Arena in Pasig City on Friday.

The Cubans, who scored a three-game sweep in the Reggio Calabria leg in Italy, are heavily-favoured to roll past the Thais, who are currently at the bottom of the 12-strong World Grand Prix table. The Thais however, will definitely receive a warm welcome since they are practically the same team which will see action in the Southeast Asian Games in November.

Meanwhile, Italy tests the mettle of the vastly-improved Netherlands squad, which upset the United States in the Ningbo, China during the first week. The Dutch, who also beat the Thais, left China with a 2-1 card and five ranking points.

But the Italians, despite a young line-up, remain a slight favourite owing to their impressive showing on
their home soil in Reggio Calabria. They beat two strong teams in Germany and the Dominican Republic, and lost to the Cubans en route to a 2-1 result and five ranking points.

The Italians and the Cubans clash in the final day of the three-day tournament organized by the Philippine Amateur Volleyball Association on July 3.

The Cubans are coming into this tournament with six ranking points, the same points amassed by China and defending champion Brazil, although the Chinese are slightly ahead in the points ratio.

Veterans Yumika Ruiz, Zoila Barros Fernandez, Ana Ibis Fernadez Valle and Marta Sanchez Salfran lead the powerful Cuban team, with youngsters Rosil Calrderon Diaz, Nancy Carillo dela Paz, Yaima Ortiz Harro and Daimi Ramirez Echevarria providing some great inspiration and combative spirit.

"Every year, we undergo a lot of changes, especially on the part of the players so we have many young players. But we always try our best to win," said Cuba coach Felipe Calderon Blet.

The Thais, the smallest team in the field with two six-footers in the line-up, will be at a disadvantage against the taller and more experienced Cubans, who also have their share of followers in the country when they won their second Grand Prix crown back in 2002.

"We don't expect to beat any team here, but we feel blessed enough because we get to play the best teams in the world," said Thailand coach Sutchai Chanbunchee.