Montreux, Switzerland, September 7, 2018 - Day 3 of the 33rd Montreux Masters was one of epic proportions for players and supporters alike as Italy & China played out their final Pool A matches with qualification for the semi-finals at stake.
It would prove a day of mixed fortunes for some of the tournament favourites, Italy sealing progress with victory over Switzerland before Olympic champions and World Number One seed China crashed out after defeat to Turkey for their first group stage exit in three years. The Turks sit proudly atop Pool A above the Italians, and are also guaranteed a place in the last four, doing so with a game to spare.
Over in Pool B, Poland- without the rested Malwina Smarzek- took a huge step towards a semi-final place with victory over Cameroon to go top of the group going into the final round of pool matches, but must at the bare minimum force a tie-break in today’s showdown with Russia to be certain of progress.
So what did we learn from a thrilling Thursday on the Swiss Riviera which asked plenty of questions of the big guns?
Out of sorts China under more scrutiny after early exit
Any optimism that had built around An Jiajie’s young Chinese side after their opening win over Switzerland had dissipated after their Day 2 demolition by Italy, and their hopes of a shot at the podium were dashed entirely and somewhat prematurely on Thursday after Giovanni Guidetti’s Turkey outclassed the East Asians over four sets. It was China’s first group stage exit since 2015.
With the FIVB World Championships around the corner, An Jiajie had named an experimental side at this tournament with senior players- the eldest being capatain Liu Xiaotong (28)- blended with an array of younger stars. The side has an average age of just 22 years, but that appeared to be of little concern following a strong opening day performance against the Swiss in which 22-year-old Middle Blocker Hu Mingyuan was one of the more influential players.She was ineffective in comparison against both the Azzurrine and the Turks, but of bigger concern will be the atypically flat performances of their attackers, particularly star player Gong Xiangyu. The normally prolific Opposite Spiker has managed 31 points over three games at this year’s Montreux Masters, averaging at just 10.33 points per game. Wing Spiker Liu Yanhan- China’s joint-second highest scorer- only registered a modest 22 points, a tally shared with her teammate in same position, Duan Fang. This lack of bite in attack may go some way to explaining why China were unable to take advantage against a Turkey side who coasted to a win in four sets despite making 31 errors.
China’s discipline and lack of errors is one of the plus points of their game that An Jiajie and his staff will look to for future encouragement. They were solid in their only win with just 12 errors against the Swiss, making 16 of their own against Turkey, which pales in comparison to their opponents’ tally in the game. Their most error strewn performance came in their straight set defeat to Italy, where they made 22.
The Chinese youth experiment may not have paid dividends on this occasion, but it will provide plenty of scrutiny and plenty to think about ahead of the World Championships as the team from the Middle Kingdom look to find a winning formula.
Giovanni Guidetti’s Turkey put themselves firmly amongst Gold Medal contenders
Giovanni Guidetti’s renaissance of Turkish Volleyball continued in fine fashion on Thursday evening, as they picked apart the Chinese to grind out a win over four sets, enough to see them through to the last-four with a game to spare.
It is just another coming of age for a set of players who have rediscovered their identity since Guidetti came to the helm last year. Hit by a string of key retirements, Guidetti has put his faith in a group of young players to add to the experience already in his squad- which has an average age of 24-, and with two medals already under their belts since his arrival, there may be more to come in Montreux. It was one of his more experienced players, 31-year-old Middle Blocker Eda Erdem Dundar, that did the damage against China, scoring 21-points. Their current leading scorer overall is another experienced head in Meryem Boz, the 30-year-old Opposite notched 19 points against the Chinese and 31 across both of their matches so far, ahead of Erdem Dundar by one.
But although experience is packing a punch, youth is also causing collateral damage to Turkey’s opponents. The youngest of Turkey’s better performers is 19-year-old Middle Blocker Zehra Gunes, who has notched 19 points, with 15 spikes and six blocks. 24-year-old Wing Spiker Meliha Ismailoglu has also had a positive impact, notching 19 points over their two matches.
19 points WS Meliha Ismailoglu 24 years old.
With a whopping 31 errors made, however, against the Chinese alone, Guidetti still has some issues to address in training. Their prowess in attack and ability to outscore the opposition is working to their credit at the present time, but they will need to tighten up if they are to trouble the medal contenders progressing from Pool B. Nevertheless, with two notable scalps in Italy and China already to their names after their opening games, a wealth of experience and a touch of younger talent, the ‘Queens of the Net’ are in a good place ahead of their final group match and their semi-finals, and must be considered a serious contender for a medal.
Italy show strength in depth as they find a new way to win
Italy played out their final group match against Switzerland, knowing that a victory in straight sets would see them on the cusp of the last four, despite still being at the mercy of China’s result against Turkey. A win in straight sets, coupled with China’s defeat to the Turks later on Thursday rubber-stamped their place in the semi-finals, but it will be the manner of the Azzurrine’s win over their transalpine neighbours that will have pleased Head Coach, Davide Mazzanti, as they did it all without leading scorer Paola Ogechi Egonu.
Egonu, Italy’s leading scorer in the opening two matches, was rested for the match against the hosts, but Mazzanti’s fringe players stepped up to the plate and got the job done as Wing Spiker Miryam Fatime Sylla notched 11 points and Middle Blocker Anna Danesi made a decisive contribution of her own with seven spikes and two blocks, including the final two points of the game. Serene Ortolani and Sylvia Chinelo Nwakalor also shone for the women in blue as they banished any inkling that they have an over-reliance on the mercurial talent of 19-year-old Egonu, who’d racked up 32 points over their opening two matches. Lucia Bosetti and Danesi- both of whom featured against the Swiss- have accumulated a total of 25 and 17 points respectively over the three games.
It will be a welcome statement from this Italy side for Mazzanti, his coaching staff, and fans alike, as they look to go into the semi-finals with maximum confidence.
Poland get the job done without star player
Jacek Nawrocki’s Poland made short work of Cameroon in Pool B in Thursday’s final game as they saw off the African champions in straight sets, thus taking a huge step towards the semi-finals. They top the group by one point with one match to go, a winner-takes-all crunch match with Russia on Friday.
Despite the importance of the win going into the game with Cameroon, Nawrocki resisted turning to his leading scorer Malwina Smarzek- who scored 31 points in their tie-break win over Brazil on the opening day- and instead gave his fringe players the chance to impress. Magdalena Damaske, a second set substitute at Wing Spiker, did her chances no harm with a steady six-point performance, whilst 23-year-old Martyna Grajber managed the most of any individual Polish player in the game with seven. Agnieszka Kąkolewska was influential in the Middle Blocker position also, with a six-point contribution of her own.
Sharing the points around his side will be a welcome factor for Nawrocki and his coaching staff as Poland try to avoid an obvious over-reliance on Smarzek as she is sure to be targeted by Russia’s defence in the Pool B decider on Friday. They found a way to win without their star woman here, and although they won’t have to against the Sbornaya, the capacity of the remainder of the squad to stand up and be counted on the big occasion will be vital. Forcing a tie-break will guarantee progress, whilst any less will leave them vulnerable to elimination and being dumped into the classification ties.
Positives for Switzerland despite failure to qualify
Timo Lippuner’s Switzerland were always likely to be up against the odds against an Italy side that simply had to win their final Pool A match to have any chance of reaching the semi-finals. Albeit the Azzurrine battled to a win in straight-sets to progress and put pain to the hosts’ own ambitions of going through, the Swiss had plenty of positives to take into their final Pool A game with Turkey and the classification ties beyond after a spirited performance.
Their main attacking threat, Wing Spiker Laura Kunzler, caused the Italians numerous problems as her 11 point individual tally made her the game’s joint-top scorer alongside Italy’s Miryam Fatime Sylla. Madlaina Matter and Gabi Schottroff both put in excellent performances at the net with an accumulated five blocks and ten points between them, whilst Maja Storck proved a handful with six-point contribution of her own.
Some tidy work defensively from Libero Thays Deprati and Méline Pierret contributed to some excellent rallies throughout the three sets, and that will also be amongst the multitude of positives to take from the experience of playing at this competition against some of the best talent in the game as the Swiss look ahead to more serious business: the resuming of the European Championship Qualifiers where they require a solitary point to qualify for the first time.