Belogorie claims Russian derby to vie for third Champions League crown
Belogorie BELGOROD was seen as the clear-cut favourite of this semi-final for this team could rely on an impressive series of five straight wins over their opponents from Tatarstan by combining a series of Russian competitions spanning from the 2013 Superleague to the last edition of the Supercup. On top of this, Belogorie could also count on the loud support of more than 200 supporters who had all travelled on a charter flight to Turkey’s capital city. On the other side of the net, the players of Zenit were extra motivated to break that negative streak also by last week’s victory of Dinamo in the women’s competition, the starting point of a potential unprecedented clean sweep by teams from the same city in the CEV DenizBank Volleyball Champions League. The Tatari crew was composed of only 20 people, but their presence was nevertheless to be felt on Saturday afternoon at Baskent Volleyball Hall.
Another interesting fact to mention: two players included in the roster of Belogorie – i.e. Sergey Tetyukhin and Alexander Bogomolov – were back to Ankara 19 years after winning gold at the Junior European Championship that had taken place in Turkey’s capital city in 1994. Russia had topped the charts back then as the team also included the likes of giant Alexey Kazakov – who started this season in Kazan before switching back to Belgorod and for this reason was no longer eligible to play in this year’s European Cups – and of Vladimir Kastornov, who was also in Ankara on Saturday afternoon co-commentating the match for NTV Sport +.
The first point of the game was scored by Russia’s Olympic hero Dmitriy Muserskiy and Belogorie quickly opened a small gap (4:1) to immediately set the tone of the game. Both teams found it difficult to display the necessary consistency from the serving zone but even though Zenit gradually found their way into the match, Belogorie led the way at the first technical time-out (8:5) after a terrific triple block on US American spiker Matthew Anderson. Trying to add another chapter to Russia’s supremacy on the international stage, both of these teams were also vying for their third title in the competition, an accolade that only Italy’s TRENTINO Volley could achieve since the inception of the Champions League 14 years ago. Belogorie had dropped only two sets on their way to the Final Four Tournament and even the star-studded Tatari armada from Kazan seemed to have difficulties to stand the pace imposed by Muserskiy & Co. (11:7). Maxim Mikhaylov woke up his side with an ace that reduced the gap to only two points but Belogorie responded promptly by scoring another two. Zenit tried hard to keep the pace of their countrymen but again it was Belogorie that got the edge at the second mandatory stop (16:13) after showing superb Volleyball in all fundamentals. As the game resumed, again and again both teams missed a good share of their serves, before a block by Belogorie setter Dragan Travica moved the score up to 21:16 and prompted a time-out by Zenit mentor Vladimir Alekno. Only a couple of minutes later it was then Gennady Shipulin who had to stop the game after a “lucky ace” by Evgeny Sivozhelez had sparked some nervousness among his players. He got the reaction he wanted and his guys cruised to the provisional 1:0 (25-19) that was cashed on a terrific crosscourt killed by Georg Grozer.
To start the second set, Alekno decided to rely on the experience of Roman Yakovlev who replaced Sivozhelez after a very disappointing performance by the latter in the early phases of the match. One figure taken from the stats of the first set could easily explain Belogorie’s supremacy in the game: Shipulin’s players had successfully concluded 54% of their attacks while that same figure stood at a very poor 27% for KAZAN. However, the Tatari train was back on track leading the way at the first technical time-out (8:7) though Grozer continued to put great pressure on Zenit block and defence to keep the score very tight. Zenit claimed nevertheless their largest lead since the beginning of the match by the time the second technical stop was called (16:13); the Tatars then widened that cushion to four points (19:15) but after a time-out asked by Shipulin, Belogorie stormed back to -2 (19:17). On a net fault by their opponents, Belogorie almost completed their comeback (20:19) but Zenit then responded by scoring four in a row; the Tatars had already started their celebrations when a decision by the first referee was overturned by the challenge system but KAZAN had to wait for only a few seconds more until Matthew Anderson sealed the 25-22 that re-opened the fate of the match.
Zenit’s efficiency in attack had moved up to 60% in the second set, whereas Belogorie had killed only 36% of their spikes, a clear indication that the match had followed a totally different plot than in the first set. However, the “Lions” from Belgorod were quickly back to their usual standards in the early phases of set 3 (5:2) and showed glimpses of their class to cruise to the provisional 8:4 at the first technical time-out. There was not much that Zenit could do to stop that storm (13:5); Alekno decided to change one of his middle-blockers with Alexander Abrosimov joining the actions, but he also got to feel the power and height of Muserskiy’s block. Though Zenit attempted a late comeback with a 7:2 break that moved the score to 15:10, Tetyukhin, Muserskiy, and Grozer propelled their side to a 20:14 lead that paved the way for the final 25-18 cashed on a serving error by Zenit.
Belogorie re-asserted their intention to prolong their winning streak storming out to a 5:2 lead in set 4; Alekno did not change any piece of his starting six, with Abrosimov and Yakovlev still in the game for Apalikov and Sivozhelez, but similarly to what had happened in the third set, Belogorie’s supremacy was just overwhelming (13:7), especially behind the serving line. At this stage Maxim Mikhaylov took his side by the hand to bring back some hope for a tie-break (13:10) but Muserskiy responded by scoring the next point to immediately contain that threat. Alekno looked hopeless realising that the final whistle was just round the corner (20:14) and eventually Zenit lost for the second consecutive year a Russian derby in the semis of the Champions League (last season it was edged by eventual winners Lokomotiv NOVOSIBIRSK). Belogorie cemented their supremacy in the match with a splendid final rush (25-17).
“Volleyball is like mathematics and if you make as many mistakes as we did today, you end up losing, so this defeat does not come as a surprise to us. At the same time I would like to congratulate the team of Belogorie and wish them the best of luck for the final where we hope they will win the title and carry on the Russian supremacy in this competition,” said Zenit mentor Vladimir Alekno.
“That was the fourth time we played Belogorie this season; we had lost three matches in a row but we always played in Belgorod, so this time we were hoping to change this negative trend since we were playing on neutral ground,” commented Zenit setter Nikola Grbic. “We eventually did not succeed in doing this and could not display our best. We have to regroup, get back our confidence and start fighting for the title in the Superleague which is the last trophy we can win this season.”
“I would like to thank the many fans who have travelled from Russia down to Ankara for this Final Four Tournament. It was good to get to feel such a nice atmosphere already during the semi-final,” said Belogorie BELGOROD captain Taras Khtey. “Tomorrow is a new day; we will now regroup, follow the second semi-final and try to get ready for the most important game of the weekend.”
“I would like to congratulate my players who have achieved the goal we had set at the beginning of the season,” said Gennady Shipulin. “This is very remarkable especially with the very tight and demanding schedule we have had in the Russian Superleague, flying very often to Siberia and then back home. We feel ready to take on the final and will be doing our best to win the title.”
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