It was a contest between the champions of Asia and the champions of Europe -- but on the night it was no contest at all.
At Namihaya Dome on Wednesday, impressive Italy demolished jittery Japan 25-18, 25-19, 25-14 and will head for the third phase of the World Cup with a perfect 5-0 win-loss record. Japan, playing in front of 8,000 fans, slipped to 3-2.
It was Italy's 12th straight win over Japan since Japan beat them in the Olympic Qualifying Tournament for Athens in Tokyo in May 2004.
The grace and power of Cuba-born Taismary Aguero was on display in the early stages as she drew gasps from the crowd with her smooth, rhythmic spiking. So far in this World Cup, Aguero has resembled a sleek Ferrari in the garage, just revving its engine and waiting to accelerate. Perhaps tonight would be the night.
In reply, Megumi Kurihara rose to the occasion and sprinkled the Italian court with some dazzling winners from unlikely positions, and Miyuki Takahashi foraged away up the left flank, producing a trademark winner with no space to work in.
With Jenny Barazza in dominant form at the net, Italy led 8-7 at the first TTO and then 11-8, sending Japan into a TO.
Antonella Del Core on the left and Simona Gioli at the net collected easy points to prompt an uneasy stirring amongst the home fans, and Barazza brought up the second TTO 16-12 Italy.
At the net, Erika Araki and Sachiko Sugiyama had to be at their most nimble and inventive to pierce the Italian defence, and Japan took a second TO with the first set slipping away at 20-14. On one point, Aguero appeared to be riding an invisible escalator and walking on air before swishing another effortless winner on the right. Poetry in motion.
A Del Core save turned into another Italian point, and Kimura served into the net to hand Italy the opening frame 25-18.
The second set saw Italy romp into a 6-2 lead, forcing a Japan TO, as they mastered their opponents in all phases of play.
Even though Sugiyama continued to produce points off the sharp setting of Yoshie Takeshita, Italy were buzzing with attacking combinations, allowing setter Eleonora Lo Bianco to spike quickly into a big space with the defence scattered.
Manuela Secolo brought up the first TTO 8-4 with a winner on the left, and Aguero resumed the attack on the restart. Barazza was scoring at will, and Gioli easily blocked Araki for 13-7.
Kurihara gave the home fans something to cheer with a flying spike on the right, and Sugiyama blocked Gioli, but Italy still held a seven-point lead at the second TTO, 16-9.
Gioli thrashed an overhead set from Lo Bianco past a sprawling libero Sano, before Japan made up some ground and forced an Italy TO at 17-13. Again Sugiyama was the driving force of the recovery with her mobility and precision around the net.
Some fireball serving from Takahashi and Kurihara spiking brought Japan to within one, 17-16, and had the shell-shocked Italians retreating again for a TO. On the resumption, poor reception enabled Kurihara to batter Japan level as the noise level rose.
Italy changed Secolo for Ortolani, who found immediate joy on the left. Down 20-18, Japan called a TO, determined not to let their sparkling revival go to waste, but wild spiking down the stretch ended Japan's chances. Italy finished it 25-19 with an Aguero drive.
After the 10-minute break, Italy were keen not to go cold, as the Serbs had done in Tokyo on Sunday, and turned up the heat, 8-3 at the first TTO.
Takahashi spiked past Aguero's block to raise home spirits, but Japan immediately undid the good work with more careless serving. When Del Core spiked powerfully from the left, the hall fell silent -- 12-5 Italy and a desperate Japan TO.
The blocking of Barazza denied Japan the chance to fight back, and Takahashi, looking for extra power, spiked wildly beyond the base line. At 16-6, the Italians were racing to the third set and the match.
Every time Japan threatened a comeback, the Italians stepped up the pace and maintained a safe distance either with their well-crafted moves or their systematic defence. At 19-8, Japan called a TO, but it was only delaying the inevitable.
The Italians were in no mood for drama, and their speed and power left Japan blocking shadows.
It was a magnificent display by Barbolini's European champions, who closed out the third set 25-14. Fittingly it was Barazza who pounded the final point for 3-0.