Russia beat Italy in four to book final spot
It was a mouth-watering match up with the teams having met previously 28 times in the World League, with Russia winning 17 matches and Italy 11. Ten of those 28 matches took place in the Finals, Russia having won six, including the last four, and Italy four. Russia, ranked second in the world, had also won eight of the previous nine encounters across all tournaments with world No. 3 Italy’s 3-1 Intercontinental Round win this year their only victory since the 2008 World League.
But the numbers of Friday seemed irrelevant as this young Italian team, after winning Olympic bronze last year, is at the start of a new era, as coach Mauro Berruto said earlier in the week. After topping Pool B ahead of Russia in the Intercontinental Round, they were impressive against Bulgaria and Argentina in the World League Finals pool play to contest their first semifinal since 2004.
But it was the Olympic champions who really took the match by the scruff of the neck in the opening set, Dmitriy Muserskiy’s spike into the head of Dragan Travica rubbing salt into the wound as Russia opened a 12-7 lead. Nikolay Apolikov then gave the world No. 2 a 15-7 lead with some incredible power serving, which included an ace. Russia’s top scorer in the World League Nikolay Pavlov may have been short of a gallop in Russia’s previous two games but this match he was back to his best, flying, gliding, spiking and tipping his way to four points but more importantly providing a key attacking weapon on the right flank. Muserskiy, who contributed to an outstanding rally with a phenomenal foot leap touch into the net, may have topped the scoring with five but Pavlov deserved the applause he received. The final set score of 25-12 was the lowest ever between the two countries. An ominous start for the eight-time champions.
After the disappointing first set, there was only one way to go for Italy and that was up. Like Friday’s win over Argentina, libero Andrea Giovi was replaced by Salvatore Rossini to improve the passing and that immediately worked. An 8-6 lead soon opened to 12-7 before Russia started to put on the squeeze. Sergey Grankin’s block on Savani boosted spirits before Pavlov provided a deft touch to close the gap to 16-14. Italy lost a challenge to close it to 16-15 before the set was tied at 18-18 thanks to an outstanding serve from Ilia Zhilin and Apalikov’s block on Travica. Like an expert sprinter timing their run perfectly, Russia gained the lead at 23-22 before Pavlov sealed the set at 25-23 with his 10th point of the match.
Italy now had their backs against the wall. As much as Simone Parodi, Emanuele Birarelli and Zaytsev tried to give the eight-time World League champions the initiative, Russia – Muserskiy, Pavlov and Alexey Spiridonov inparticular – had their measure. The 2011 champions were up 13-10 before Pavlov’s block on Zaytsev at 18-13 effectively sealed the match. It certainly seemed that way when Russia had match point at 24-23 but two inspired spikes from Zaytsev, gave Italy set point at 25-24 before Pavlov, the leading scorer in the match with 17 points, inexplicably spiked into the net. Italy’s relief and surprise at still being in the match was clear for all to see at the change of ends.
How would Italy profit from that let off? Their two previous World League semifinal encounters had finished in four sets with both sides winning one each but obviously Italy wanted to change this trend. But Russia, was having none of it. The 2.18m Muserskiy was enormous at the net, collecting his eight and ninth points of the game to give Russia a 7-4 lead, despite some incredible defence efforts from Italian skipper Savani. Italy’s desperation was apparent when they unsuccessfully challenged a serving foot fault on Spiridonov at 11-6. This spurred Berruto to take a timeout which worked wonders as Italy fought back to 18-16. Zaytsev scored his 16th point of the match before Apolikov scored an ace to make it 21-18. Spiridonov’s combative nature earnt him a red card and then a combined yellow and red which expelled him from the game. Despite that late drama, Russia soon wrapped up the match with Zhilin sealing the set and the match 25-20.