Montreux, Switzerland, September 6, 2018- It was an afternoon of upsets at the 33rd Montreux Masters on Wednesday as defending champions Brazil & World Number One seed China were put to the sword by Poland and Italy respectively, whilst Russia dirtied the red carpet laid out for Cameroon’s big welcome by easing the African champions aside in straight sets.
But what questions & answers came from these three results as both pools enter their final two matchdays with all to play for with no team having yet sealed progress to the semi-finals?
Italy re-discover their spark
After a stylish opening performance from a youthful Chinese side against the Swiss, many neutrals and perhaps even the most optimistic Italian fan might have been forgiven for predicting a win for the 2017 Bronze medallists here after Italy were dispatched by Turkey on the opening day in a limp performance. Yet any critics the Azzurrine may have had were duly silenced here as Davide Mazzanti’s side put in a ruthless performance to hammer the reigning Olympic champions 3:0 (25-20, 25-13, 25-13).
Italy were indebted to the individual brilliance of Opposite starlet Paola Ogechi Egonu, whose 18 points were vital in achieving victory, whilst veteran Lucia Bosetti was also on form with ten-point plunder of her own. Captain Cristina Chirichella and Ofelia Malinov were equally impressive defensively, with five blocks between them as Italy’s reception & blocking game was able to neutralise China’s lethal attack. However, the telling factor in their overall team play was how they cut out the individual errors in their game which had proven so costly against the Turks just one day earlier. The Azzurrine made a mere 11 mistakes collectively on court against the Chinese, whilst forcing 22 out of their opponents. The key for Mazzanti and his staff now will be to ensure that the Italians maintain this consistency, in the knowledge that a victory in their final group match against the Swiss on Thursday (06.09.18. 16:30 CET) will all but see them through to the semi-finals.
China’s problems surface as Italy take the edge off their attacking threat
Head Coach An Jiajie will have plenty to think about ahead of China’s final group match against Turkey as the faults of his side were exposed by a rampant Italy on Wednesday. Hu Mingyuan, so influential in the Middle Blocker position in their opening win, was given a torrid time here by the lively Paola Ogechi Egonu, scoring only one block point in a total of nine attempts.
China’s leading match scorer, Wing Spiker Duan Fang (12 points), was only able to register a total of nine spike points out of an attempted 26 as the Asians looked comparatively blunt to how they’d measured up in recent performances, the creativity of Gong Xiangyu also nullified as she only managed a total of four points throughout the game. China’s other influential attacker from the opening day, Liu Yanhan managed just 10 points here, converting nine spikes from a total 32 attempts. Ineffective attacking and hapless defensively at times against the Italians, rediscovering his team’s best form and maintaining consistency will be a priority for An Jiajie and his staff, since one more slip-up against Turkey on Thursday (06.09.18. 18:45 CET) will see their hopes of a podium finish come to a premature end.
Poland’s young talent comes of age
Jacek Nawrocki’s side were denied a shot at the podium last year by the skin of their teeth and were invited back to Montreux this year having left a positive impression on the competition in 2017. They duly picked up where they left off in their first game of the 33rd Montreux Masters on Wednesday, clinching a tie-break classic against defending champions Brazil to get their campaign off to a winning start.
22-year-old Opposite Malwina Smarzek was the catalyst in this victory with her sensational individual tally of 31 points (including 28 spike points), but she wasn’t the only strong performer on the day as three of her teammates also broke the double-figure points barrier in this one. Wing Spiker Julia Twardowska, 23, chipped in with 17 points (including an impressive tally of five blocks and three aces), whilst Middle Blocker Agnieszka Kakolewska & Wing Spiker Martyna Grajber contributed 14 (including four blocks) and 12 points respectively.
Impressive performances from Poland’s key players was of paramount importance in this win over the champions, but it becomes far more remarkable given the context that all four of the Polish star players on the day are 24-years-old or younger. With Poland’s young talent seemingly beginning to showcase their talent amongst Volleyball’s finest, Nawrocki may be about to harness a golden generation in the Women’s game for his country. Consistency will now be the key for them as they aim to take a huge step towards challenging for the podium when they face off against Cameroon on Thursday (06.09.18. 21:15 CET).
Another slow start as Brazil’s inconsistency rears its head one more
Brazil are no strangers to inconsistency at this tournament. Even on their run to the Gold medal in 2017 they didn’t manage to win all their group games after an early defeat by Germany, and although they got off to a winning start this year against Russia on Tuesday, their group stage record will once again be blemished after they slipped to a tie-break defeat to Poland.
Despite that banana skin, Brazil still remain top of Pool B by a point courtesy of the one-point gained by forcing a tie-break. However, Head Coach José Roberto Guimaraes is still faced with the problem of his side starting games slowly. They struggled over the opening set against the Russians in their first match but were able to come from behind to win, but having to negotiate more than three sets twice in 24 hours was too much for the South Americans as they simply ran out of steam and huffed and puffed to a five-set loss against a fresher and younger Polish side.
Guimaraes still has plenty of cause for encouragement following creditable individual performances from Rosamaria Montibeller and Drussyla Costa, who notched 16 points each, yet his team will have to rediscover their killer instinct quickly and come out of the blocks quicker to avoid falling to more defeats like this. With Cameroon the next opponents standing in their way in a match-up on Friday (07.09.18. 21:15 CET), their hopes of reaching the last four are still very much alive and it will be interesting to see as to how intensely they start the game following a day of rest.
Sbornaya bounce back, a learning curve for Cameroon
Despite all the hype surrounding Cameroon’s inclusion as the first ever African nation to feature at the Montreux Masters in its 33rd edition, Vadim Pankov’s Russia weren’t in a welcoming mood, crashing the arrival party with a professional performance to dispatch the debutants 3-0 (25-15, 25-17, 25-13).
Russia were out to show that they’d learnt from the experience of throwing away a one-set lead to bow to Brazil a day earlier, and did so in emphatic fashion as they were rarely troubled over a comfortable straight set win. It was one of Russia’s experienced heads, Opposite Nataliya Goncharova, that dealt the majority of the damage here as she notched 11 points, with Middle Blocker Irina Zaryazko also churning out an impressive performance to score ten points (six spikes, four blocks). Their experience was important in ensuring the Sbornaya didn’t take their foot of the gas this time around to see out the win, which puts them second in Pool B, a point behind leaders Brazil with their last match against Poland to come.
Newcomers Cameroon were exposed in their unfamiliarity to playing against such a level of opposition, unable to match the intensity of the Russians throughout the tie. If the balance of play is anything to go by, this year’s Montreux Masters will be a learning curve for the African champions as they adapt to a new standard, but credit must go to their attitude and sportsmanship as they left the court in positive mood & eager to take the positives from the experience. With Poland and Brazil still to face them, there is still much left for them to learn on the Swiss Riviera yet.