Andrea Zorzi: Italy on the right path
"The World League is celebrating its 25th edition and it continues to innovate. The creation of three groups means that more teams can participate and lessen the chance of meaningless fixtures. In a World Championship year, every team wants to improve and for everyone it will be crucial to play as many close matches as possible.
"The favourites are the same as usual; Russia, who are ahead of everyone, Brazil, Italy and the USA. Of course there are other teams such as Bulgaria, Serbia, France, Argentina and Iran who have a good chance of reaching the top group, but they will have to quickly improve to do so.
"After their win at London 2012, Russia are really making the most of their enormous technical and physical potential. There is no other country in the world with so many strong players. After underperforming for years, in the last two years they have found the perfect balance between their physical and technical ability and found the right motivation.
"The victories that their clubs have enjoyed have reinforced their confidence and they can also call on a player like Dmitriy Muserskiy, who is the strongest player in the world.
"So far in the World League, Russia have let some of their more experienced players rest and somewhat surprisingly lost to a Serbia team in great form. Serbia's Nemanja Petric, who enjoyed a good season in Italy, was one of the stars of the second win, though I don’t believe these defeats will impact on Russia reaching the final six in Florence.
"Brazil are going through a generational change and haven’t yet found their new identity. They can count on players of great experience such as Murilo, Bruno, Lucas and Vissotto, but the introduction of younger players is going slowly, especially considering the great pressure the Brazilians will be under heading towards the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympic Games. Compared to the team that dominated the world scene from 2002 until 2010, these young players continue to show great determination, but they still lack the intensity and fluidity of play that meant the Brazil of Giba and Ricardo was one of the most beautiful in volleyball's history.
"For a few years now, Italy have shown that they are playing at the highest level with some top-level players both in a physical sense and a technical sense. Thanks to Mauro Berruto’s hard work, the squad is very united and there is good depth to the squad with good players starting and in reserve and only Russia can count on players with such high skill levels.
"Hosting the World League final will be a great way for Italy to learn how to handle the psychological pressure. Dragan Travica, Ivan Zaytsev, Simone Parodi and Jiri Kovar are top-level players and if they continue to play well the team can challenge for any tournament. After the two wins over Brazil, Berruto has called on his players not to lose their heads and the Italian coach is well aware that automatic qualification for the final six makes life a little too easy, so therefore the two wins are an important sign of how the team is developing, though the team mustn’t get carried away with them.
"The development of the setter Micah Christenson, the captain Matthew Anderson and the discovery of Taylor Sander means that the US are back among the most dangerous of sides. Historically, they have been able to make full use of their resources with tactical innovations, though their one weakness could be their precision in reception that could compromise their attacking potential.
"They have started this year’s World League with two very important victories, coming back after trailing to Bulgaria, one of the most-improved teams in recent years.
"Finally I want to mention Iran, who have been the biggest surprise in recent years. The loss of Julio Velasco will be a big obstacle to overcome as the development of this team is not yet finished and the trust that the players had in Velasco mean that it could be a tricky handover period for the new coach, Boban Kovac.
"Their group is very difficult and the two losses to Italy is a sign that it will be difficult for them to find their rhythm in this phase. For a team like theirs - with little experience and high hopes at home - the next few months could be extremely tricky."
Andrea Zorzi is a former Italian volleyball star who won two FIVB Volleyball Men’s World Championship crowns in 1990 and 1994 as well as three World League titles from 1990-1992 where he also won the Most Valuable Player award at both the 1990 and 1991 editions. He was also a silver medallist at the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games and won the 1989 European Championship in a career which spanned 325 matches. After retiring in 1998, he collaborated with a number of important Italian TV networks as well as international newspapers as a journalist.
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