Montreux, Switzerland, September 5, 2018- The 2018 Montreux Volley Masters made its long-awaited return on Tuesday, having been pushed back from its traditional May-June schedule to accommodate the new Volleyball Nations League, and the curtain raiser for this year didn’t disappoint, with China, Brazil and Turkey emerging victorious following strong opening displays.
But what did we learn from the first round of games in Pools A and B as the three winners took a huge step towards a semi-final place?
World Number One China look the real deal
It is, of course, typical that any Chinese team will be a strong one. The FIVB World Number One seed are the defending Olympic champions after all, but with Executive Coach An Jiajie naming an experimental side in Montreux ahead of the FIVB World Championships, the question remained as to whether the team from the Middle Kingdom could replicate the fluency that has been so characteristic of their game at the highest level. They answered that question in some style against hosts Switzerland, Wing Spikers Liu Yanhan and regular national team feature Gong Xiangyu looking particularly impressive. 23-year-old Wing Spiker Duan Fang did her chances little harm with a steady performance, and captain Liu Xiaotong- something of a veteran in this side at 28- lead by example with a composed display of her own.
One standout for the Chinese, however, was their solidity at the net in their defensive blocking game, 22-year-old Middle Blocker Hu Mingyuan churning out a particularly excellent performance in one of the standout individual displays of the game. 20-year-old Middle Blocker Gao Yi featured at last year’s competition, and she put in another impressive performance beyond her years to bolt the door in the face of their Swiss hosts.
As a unit, China’s reception and ability to set the ball in a slick, easy-on-the-eye style can dazzle spectator and opposition alike at times, and their movement was very much on point here. This Chinese team once again looks a dangerous prospect going forward and one to be feared by any team. A podium finish in their sights, it would be no surprise if the Asians go far at this tournament once again.
2. Brazil find a way to win
What makes a champion is not only individual talent and ability, but also the capacity to triumph in the face of adversity and find a way to win in difficult matches. Brazil were given a stern test of these credentials in their opening Pool B game against a youthful Russia, having to come from behind having conceded the first set to snatch an eventual 3-1 win.
The Wing Spikers lead the way for the South Americans, with Gabi and Rosamaria Montibeller the architects of Russia’s downfall with a combined 34 point haul. However, it was the overall adaptability of José Roberto Guimaraes’ team which eventually overcame the youth and energy of their opponents.
Having been shocked by Russia’s height, high intensity approach and presence at the net in a rocky opening set, Brazil changed tact and enacted a means of countering the Europeans’ approach, with veteran Middle Blocker Thaisa Menezes beginning to get a grip on proceedings as the World Number Four seed began to edge the key duels. Ana Carolina ‘Carol’ da Silva, Drussyla Costa, Danielle Lins, and Fernanda ‘Fe Garay’ Rodrigues all put in lively performances as the Brazilians began to unlock the Russian rearguard, but with their superior experience came the key aspect of better discipline, a factor which proved detrimental to the hopes of their opponents as the youthful Russians conceded several key points to individual mistakes. They had to do it the hard way, but they came through this latest test without having to negotiate a fifth set, and that will be encouraging for Guimaraes and his staff going into the next game, and indeed the FIVB World Championships lying ahead.
3. Inexperience proves costly despite spirited Russian performance
Vadim Pankov’s Sbornaya side did their own credentials little harm against the reigning Gold Medallists. The energy and intensity displayed in a fiery opening set was enough to show that the World Number Five seed can prove a handful for any team in Montreux, with Opposite Nataliya Goncharova and Wing Spiker Ksenia Parubets a particularly potent attacking threat, the former actually finishing as the game’s best attacker with an 18-point individual tally.
Yet, in Pankov’s squad, just eight out of his 22 players were born before 1994, and although youth comes with its high-energy and lack of fear, it also comes with naivety and inexperience, and it was this aspect of their game that was exposed by Brazil, to their torment. Goncharova and Parubets put a dampener on their own individual performances with a string of criminal errors. Irina Voronkova was another strong performer who let herself down with her mistakes at key times, whilst Natalia Krotkova was harshly exposed in the final set after being caught napping by Danielle Lins at the serve to concede a key ace point. In all, Pankov’s side conceded a monumental 28 points to individual errors, an area of their game that they will have to improve on if they are to trouble the stronger sides and compete for a podium place.
4. Master craftsman Guidetti transforms Turkey with the power of youth
Turkish Volleyball has been forced to endure a period of stagnation in recent years. With little to celebrate since winning Gold in Montreux three years ago, and having been hit by the retirement of several key players, head coach Giovanni Guidetti has overseen an overhaul of the ‘Queens of the Net’ since taking over in 2017.
Putting his faith in the nation’s younger generation of players, his team has repaid his faith already with a Bronze Medal at the 2017 European Championship and a Silver Medal in this year’s FIVB Nations League in Nanjing. Guidetti has seen fit to persist with this formula as his recipe for success in Montreux, and is looking to perfect it ahead of the upcoming World Championships. Youngsters Hande Baladin at Wing Spiker, and Middle Blocker Zehra Gunes both put in impressive performances as Turkey dismantled a similarly young Italy side, their vibrancy coupled with the experience of Opposite Meryem Boz and captain Eda Erdem Dundar helping the Turks edge the key rallies and expose the Squadra Azzurra’s frailties (the Italians having committed a total of 20 errors throughout the game).
Similarly to the Russians, however, Turkey were made to weather the storm brought by inexperience as they committed a total of 25 errors through the game, but this is something that mastermind Guidetti will have identified and look to be working on ahead of their next showdown with World Number One, China. This game will test just how far Guidetti’s team has come under his management, with the opportunity to play against perhaps one of the most complete sides at Montreux this year.
5. Mazzanti has problems to solve for Italy despite Egonu threat
Davide Mazzanti’s Italy are another team to come to Montreux with a young side. Just three of a 14-strong Squadra Azzurra were born before 1994, the oldest of these, Wing Spiker Serena Ortolani, being 31. The captain, Cristina Chirichella, is only 24 years of age in the Middle Blocker position. Albeit they made fewer errors than their Turkish adversaries, they came at key times during tight rallies and other stages in the game in which they may have dissipated Turkish momentum by securing the point. Instead, they limped to a 0:3 (18-25, 24-26, 21-25) defeat despite remaining competitive throughout.
In terms of staying in the contest for as long as they did, the Italians are indebted to the rising talent of 19-year-old Opposite Paola Ogechi Egonu, who continued where she left off in the European Olympic Qualifiers and the FIVB Grand Prix with a 14-point individual tally here, including 12 spikes. But if her contribution is to prove decisive in Italy’s favour, her teammates will have to raise their game to her level, and ironing out individual mistakes on court in training will be a priority for Mazzanti and his coaching staff. They can ill-afford another error strewn performance like this, or their hopes of a podium place at Montreux will be over. With China up next, the team from the Stivale must put in a better performance if they are to come away with any reward for their efforts.