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World League preview: favourites under pressure going into week three

 
Russia coach Andrey Voronkov's players take on a rejuvenated US team on Friday and Saturday
Lausanne, Switzerland, June 4, 2014 - Two top favourites under pressure, four debutants making their first appearances, and 32 matches around the world: week three of the FIVB World League is littered with mouth-watering highlights.

The outings of defending champions Russia and record winners Brazil (nine titles) promise to be particularly tense affairs. The world has, to a certain degree, been turned on its head: the two dominant teams of recent years made a poor start to the 25th anniversary tournament, meaning they can barely afford to lose this weekend – otherwise they risk crashing out in the preliminary round.

Brazil have won just one of their four previous home matches in pool A, and now face Iran in their final two preliminary round matches on home soil in Sao Paulo on Friday and Saturday. "We are building a new team and we need to practice more. We still have a lot to improve," said Brazil's Lucas Saatkamp.

The same goes for Olympic champions Russia, whose weakened team suffered two defeats in Serbia and currently lie bottom of pool B. To make matters worse, they must now travel to Long Beach on Friday and Saturday to take on a rejuvenated US team, who won both of their opening games in Bulgaria. "We were unable to perform to 100 per cent against Serbia. Something was missing and we will try to change that for future matches," said Russian coach Andrey Voronkov.

The second match in this pool sees Bulgaria welcome table-topping Serbia to the country’s capital Sofia on Saturday and Sunday. The guests are brimming with confidence after defeating the Olympic champions: "These victories mean a lot to us for the upcoming matches in the World League, because it is not common to beat Russia twice in one weekend."

Italy go into their home games against Poland on Friday and Sunday with their heads held high. The Azzurri have won all four matches – the shock away win in Brazil was followed by a dominant display to defeat Iran – and are obviously looking to continue this winning run. Mauro Berruto, the coach of Italy, said: "It is very important to have 12 points in the pool after the first four matches. And we want to continue like that."

The second duel against Poland, at 20.00 on Sunday in Rome’s Foro Italico, is also the "Match of the Week". The programme allows broadcasters to televise one match from each week of the FIVB’s premier annual tournament for men free of charge.

In total, the eventful third week of the World League features a record 32 matches across all seven pools, featuring all 28 teams. The action opens on Thursday in Ceske Budejovice, when the Czech Republic face Korea in group E.

Another new chapter in the impressive story of the FIVB World League will be written on this third weekend, as four teams make their debut in the competition: Mexico, Slovakia, Tunisia and Turkey. Hosts Mexico, Tunisia and Turkey take on Cuba, who were runners-up at the last World Championship, in the first preliminary round tournament in group F, which is played in a round-robin format. Slovakia play Puerto Rico, China and Spain in the first tournament in group G.

"We are making volleyball history in our country. Slovakia is very proud to be a part of this great competition," said Lubor Halanda, President of the Slovak Volleyball Federation. His words ring true for all the debutants making their first appearance in this magnificent event.

Also new to the competition this year are Belgium, who have already enjoyed a successful debut, claiming two victories over Australia. The showdown between the top two teams in pool C now sees the Belgians take on the surprise package from last season’s FIVB World League, Canada, who also opened their campaign with two wins.

In pool D, leaders France have started with a flawless four wins in four matches but now face a stern challenge in Stuttgart against hosts Germany, whose second-string team came from 0:2 behind to win 3:2 in their second match in Argentina last weekend. "The team surprised even itself, and showed what it is capable of," said German coach Vital Heynen. The German team welcomes back four of its big-name players for the top match in this group, including Jochen Schöps.

The top two teams in the ‘super pools’ A and B will qualify for the final round from July 16-20 in the city of Florence. They will be joined by the host nation Italy and the winner of a final round contested between teams from pools C, D and E on the weekend from July 11-13 in Sydney, Australia. This competition format is completely new. Pools F and G will play two stand-alone tournaments per pool, involving the four teams in the pool. The Final Four for pools F and G will take place at the end of June in Bursa, Turkey.



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