Japan's libero Kaoru in full flight
Reggio Calabria, Italy, September 7, 2006: Russia kept alive their hopes of winning the FIVB World Grand Prix title for a fourth time with a clinical 3-0 victory over Japan in Pool B on Thursday.
The Russians, champions in 1997, 1999 and 2002, would have been eliminated from contention if they had lost, following their defeat to Brazil the previous day.
But they turned in a much more convincing performance in all areas of play to hold off Japan 25-15, 25-22, 29-27.
Japan made a terrible start, and called a TO trailing 5-1 and 12-4.
Lioubov Shashkova served two aces in three points and Russia's big red block had no problem turning back Japan's sporadic attacks.
Yulia Merkulova, using all her 2.02-metre frame, tormented Japan in attack and defence, and plundered points almost at will against Japan's experimental starting line-up.
As the set progressed, Shuka Oyama, Erika Araki and Miyuki Takahashi all proved that the Russian defence was not invincible as they scored with quick and well-placed spikes, but the game was played at the Russians' pace and in the Russians' style.
Ekaterina Gamova was keeping plenty in reserve as Merkulova led the attack, and it was Shashkova who ended the first set 25-15 with a powerful spike on the left.
Japan's attack had not functioned at all in the opening frame, but they put aside the disappointment and jumped out to a 5-1 lead in the second, forcing an early Russian TO.
The pressure remained intense on Japan's spikers, though, and a series of errors in attack allowed the Russians to pull level and then go into the first TTO ahead by two at 8-6.
Yuki Ishikawa gave Japan fresh heart with a clean winner after running round setter Yoshie Takeshita to out-fox the Russian defence, but Gamova forced another Japan TO with a trademark drive down the middle to move her team ahead 11-7.
Russia held a six-point advantage at the second technical break, but Japan found some momentum after a couple of Russian substitutions and closed the gap to three at 20-17, and then to just one at 22-21 and 23-22.
But two wild spikes from Japan handed the second set to Russia, 25-22.
Again Japan started the next set strongly, and an over-hit spike from captain Natalia Safronova gave the Asians a five-point cushion at the first technical break.
When Araki, with an athletic leap while off-balance on the right, Shuka Oyama and Saori Kimura extended Japan's advantage to 14-8, Russia called a TO to try and change the flow of the game. Kimura struck again to bring up the second TTO with Japan in front 16-9, and when Araki's serve struck the net cord and bobbled over to make it 21-15, Japan seemed to have the edge.
But the Russians wanted to end this in three, and they took the next six points to pull level 21-21.
In a tense finish, Japan missed four set points, after some crisp winners under pressure from Shashkova, and Russia took it 29-27 on their second match point when Araki's spike was wide of the corner.