Montreux, Switzerland, June 7, 2017- It was heartbreak for the Netherlands and their star performer on the night Celeste Plak as they were undone in a fifth set classic for the second match in succession. Liu Xiaotong and Gong Xiangyu led the charge for holders China with a 31-point haul to seal a hard-fought 3-2 victory (25-27, 25-22, 25-16, 17-25, 15-11). The result leaves China on the brink of the semi-finals and a chance of a podium finish once again, whilst the Oranje’s hopes of progression are very much in the balance.
The first set started in cagey fashion, with both sides eager to give little away. The Chinese, just as they were on the opening day against Switzerland, played on court with an aura of power and presence but the Netherlands stood toe-to-toe with them in the opening exchanges. The Chinese led 19-16 going into the closing stages of a competitive first set and had seemingly found a way to neutralise Plak’s spiking threat. Yet the Dutch refused to throw in the towel, and Plak took the set by the scruff of the neck with a string of big hits to reach a 25-25 deuce. A video review ordered by the referee was reviewed following a Plak spike, with the ball eventually adjudged to have remained in bounds handing the Dutch a 25-26 advantage. They would go on to claim the set with a Yvon Beliën block and take a huge 1-0 lead (25-27) over the Olympic champions.
The second set began in equally competitive fashion, with China edging into a slender lead. They were able to just keep their noses in front in what became a tremendous physical battle, until China’s edge showed when they opened an 11-7 lead with a strong show of blocking and defensive play. But the Plak-inspired Netherlands duly struck back to rein in China to a one point advantage (21-20) going into the closing plays of the set. This time, however, they were unable to press home, and a ruthless Chinese spike sealed set point at 25-22, but left every hint that this contest could go the distance.
Despite an early 8-5 lead in the third set for China, the Oranje wouldn’t allow the game to slip away and were no pushovers as shown in their tremendous play. China upped their tempo and were able to drive into a 20-12 lead with the inspiring play of Gong Xiangyu, forcing several mistakes from the Dutch and contributing some crucial blocks. They would go on to turn game on its head and lead 2-1 with a 25-16 third set win.
Cue the dynamism of Celeste Plak to put the cat back amongst the pigeons: her wonderful spiking play undoing the organised unit that was the Chinese defence. This set belonged to the Dutch, with the Oranje having pressed home a 12-16 advantage, which they increased to 14-22 on the approach to a set point to tie the game. Celeste Plak again was at the heart of China’s torment, clinching the set at 17-25 with a sublime block to level the match at 2-2 and send their game to a tiebreak for the second time in two days.
However, just as they did on the opening night against the Argentines, the Dutch couldn’t go the extra mile to overcome the Chinese. At 5-5 early in the fifth set, Liu Xiaotong seized control, and her five points helped China over the line to take the final set 15-11 and seal a 3-2 victory that sees them put one foot in the semi-finals. The Netherlands’ hopes of a last-four berth are left hanging by a thread, and they must now defeat Switzerland on Thursday to have any hope of progression.