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28/05/2017 23:33
Six elite teams through to 2018 Worlds, Slovenia celebrate first ever appearance
2018 FIVB Volleyball World Championship - Men

Luxembourg, May 28, 2017. Sunday was some kind of ‘D-Day’ for Europe’s Volleyball family with a number of highly anticipated matches going to decide which teams would book their ticket to the FIVB Volleyball Men’s World Championship to be co-hosted by Italy and Bulgaria next year. With Serbia having secured their spot on Saturday already, another five teams had a good reason to celebrate on Sunday – and something truly historic happened in Ljubljana where hosts Slovenia secured their first ever World Championship appearance after edging Belgium 3-1. France, The Netherlands, Russia and Finland completed a clean sweep of the matches they contested in their respective pools to qualify to the Worlds as well. The six runners-up – Germany, Slovakia, Belgium, Estonia, Belarus and Spain – will contest a single round robin in mid-July to determine the last European team making it to next year’s World Championship.

Pool A in Lyon (FRA)

Azerbaijan vs. Iceland

Azerbaijan finally claimed a victory in Lyon as they beat Iceland 3-0 (25-16, 25-17, 25-20). Iceland had high expectations for their last game in the qualification tournament but Rogerio Ponticelli’s men suffered another 0-3 loss, this time at the hands of Azerbaijan. The first and second sets followed the same pattern, with the score remaining close in the early stages before Azerbaijan broke away as Iceland’s reception collapsed and the outsiders also made quite some unforced errors. Iceland’s hopes to win at least one set were alive again in the third one where they kept the score tight up to 14-all, but Azerbaijan’s Dmitriy Obodnikov made the difference with nine points out of nine attempts in attack, plus one ace and two blocks. Outside hitter Agil Agazade scored six points in the last set, thus enormously contributing to the final 25-20 score. Iceland outside hitter Theodor Oskar Thorvaldsson top scored in the match with 13 points, including two aces and two blocks.

Dmitriy Obodnikov, middle blocker of Azerbaijan: “Even though we did not qualify for the next round, this tournament was a perfect way to prepare for the European League starting in two weeks and this match was a perfect opportunity to use the entire team.”

Rogerio Ponticelli, head coach of Iceland: “In their minds my players thought we were able to win this match but we faced difficulties from the beginning and made numerous unforced errors. The opponents had a good service. I have mixed feelings because we are happy to be here but sad because we did not win any set. It is tough for us, as we have to recognise that our situation in Iceland is totally different from the other nations competing here. We need to learn to make it to the next level.”

Felix Thor Gislason, outside hitter of Iceland: “We need to gain more experience to be competitive in such kind of competition. Now we will fly to San Marino for the Games of the Small States of Europe where we have good chances because we won silver two years ago. The gold medal is our clear goal this time.”

Germany vs. France

With 4,300 fans in attendance at the Palais des Sports in Lyon, France rallied to a 3-0 (25-22, 25-20, 25-20) victory over Germany in the ‘grand finale’ of the tournament to secure their ticket to next year’s World Championship. Les Bleus delivered a perfect game with a very solid attack and some amazing defence actions from their libero Jénia Grebennikov. The hosts set the tone right from the start of the match playing very aggressively and even though Germany posed a threat towards the end, Julien Lyneel closed it out 25-22. France came back from 13-15 to 15-all in the second set and with Germany making more and more mistakes, the hosts quite comfortably rallied to a 25-20 win. “There was so much energy in the first set that I had the impression that the guys were sinking a bit. I tried a double substitution changing the opposite and the setter but this did not work and at the same time Benjamin Toniutti made a block. This was some kind of lucky coincidence and a deciding moment as well,” explained head coach Laurent Tillie afterwards. The third set was mostly one-sided with the top scorer of the match, young opposite Stephen Boyer (20 points), cashing a number of match balls with an ace before Trévor Clévenot secured France’s ticket to the 2018 Worlds in Italy and Bulgaria (25-20). 

Andrea Giani, head coach of Germany: “In my opinion France is the best team in the world at the moment. As far as we are concerned, we have really good players but we need to learn how to play together.  The next step will be the World League. We start from the third group, and it will be a long way to go to the Finals. The most experienced players will have some rest to be ready for the European Championship later this summer.”

Laurent Tillie, head coach of France: “We did something really exceptional with our block. A huge work had been done before the match to study the opponent’s setter and adjust our block accordingly. With 15 blocks in one match we have the proof that it was worth the effort. Our reception was remarkable too: Jénia Grebennikov was excellent, whereas Trévor Clévenot and Julien Lyneel made huge efforts to hold on too. This victory represents more than just a qualification to the Worlds, it confirms that this generation is seriously on the road to Tokyo 2020. The team was as motivated as ever. We made a deal before the game: qualification against holidays!”

Benjamin Toniutti, captain of France: “We did not expect such a victory, it’s impossible to know the scenario of a match before it starts but with this week’s previous matches we had the confirmation of our potential. We made it to this match with lot of confidence. It’s wonderful, the game was just perfect.”

Lukas Kampa, captain of Germany: “It’s too hard to analyse our defeat now. There is too much disappointment! We really wanted to qualify directly to the Worlds. A second place means that we still have an opportunity to do so.” 

Ukraine vs. Turkey

Turkey ended their campaign in Lyon on a high note with a compelling 3-0 victory over Ukraine (25-16, 25-19, 25-20) to settle for third place in the pool. This match was supposed to be a rather close affair but finally Turkey cruised to a 3-0 victory. Even though the first set was dominated by the Turks (25-16), the second one followed a totally different plot with Ukraine leading the way until Turkey levelled the score at 15-all. After that, Turkey put a lot of pressure on the Ukrainian receivers with their service and by scoring two aces paved their way towards a 25-19 win. It was too hard to come back for the Ukraine after such a setback, they lost focus and trailed from early on in the third set – and not being able to make up for their early deficit, Ukraine surrendered at 20-25.

Ugis Krastins, head coach of Ukraine: “We are not satisfied with the result. We had big problems in reception and we gave the chance to the opponent to come back into the game. This moment was decisive, because after that we lost confidence. However, before this kind of blackout, we were doing a good job. Now we will go home and prepare for the European League. It’s the first time in history that Ukraine will participate in this competition, so it is going to be exciting.”

Yigit Gülmezoglu, opposite of Turkey: “We completed a good comeback in the second set. We did some good services in a row. After this, they had lot of pressure on them while we were getting confidence. After this competition we can see that we are not completely ready for the European Championship, which is our main goal this season.”

Josko Milenkoski, head coach of Turkey: “Today we finally played an easy match. But there was not much at stake because the two teams were not qualified in any case, that’s why both sides played a little bit too relaxed. We had great tactical services and were efficient in attack. We are looking forward to starting the World League in Ankara and I hope that the team will be complete.”

Pool B in Apeldoorn (NED)

Republic of Moldova vs. Austria

On the last competition day in The Netherlands, the Republic of Moldova won their second match in this qualification tournament. After beating Luxembourg on Saturday, the team of head coach Artur Romascan was too strong for Austria on Sunday (3-1; 22-25, 31-29, 25-22, 26-24). Both Luxembourg and Austria are higher ranked in Europe, so it’s fair to say that Moldova played a very successful tournament in Koog aan de Zaan and especially in Apeldoorn.  

The Netherlands vs. Slovakia

In the direct battle for first place in Pool B between The Netherlands and Slovakia, the Dutch hosts claimed the much-desired ticket to the 2018 FIVB Volleyball World Championship. Slovakia will get another chance to achieve this goal at the third and last qualification round scheduled for mid-July. The Netherlands needed two sets to secure the first place in the pool, and they fulfilled this task when they made it 2-2 before the ‘Lange Mannen’ kept their unbeaten status when they won the match 3-2 (25-27, 26-24, 22-25, 25-16, 15-9). “It is so important for us that we are going to the World Championship for the first time since 2002,” said Dutch head coach Gido Vermeulen. “Our programme for the next two years is perfect, now we are qualified for the European and the World Championship as well.”

Greece vs. Luxembourg

In the last match in the beautiful Omnisport in Apeldoorn, Greece proved to be too strong for Luxembourg (3-0; 25-19, 25-23, 25-21). Only in the second set the Red Lions from Luxembourg were able to pose a threat until the end of the set: 25-23. Greece, considered one of the favourites for this tournament, ended the week with three victories and two losses. Unfortunately for the team of head coach Konstantinos Arseniadis, this was not enough to qualify for the third round of qualifications. Since Slovakia has a better set ratio, Greece has to be content with third place in Pool B.  

Pool C in Ljubljana (SLO)

Slovenia vs. Belgium

On the last day of the World Championship qualifier in Ljubljana, all eyes were set on the clash between Slovenia and Belgium, who were fighting for a spot in the Finals taking place next year in Italy and Bulgaria. The home side was keen to secure their first ever World Championship appearance, while Belgium already competed at the last edition of that same competition held in 2014 in Poland. Slovenia had a 5-3 win-loss record from previous matchups with the Red Dragons, but Belgium had beaten Slovenia the last time they faced each other at the 2015 European Championship, where Slovenia later on claimed a historic silver medal. After a dramatic match and three exciting sets, Slovenia took total control in the fourth one and celebrated a memorable 3-1 win (28-30, 26-24, 27-25, 25-20) in front of 2,000 people in Arena Stožice.

“I told my players that they had to play this match with their hearts and head but at the beginning they played only with their hearts. Consequentially, we made too many mistakes, especially with our serve. Fortunately, my players changed the rhythm of their game and got this win. The feeling is fantastic,” Slovenia head coach Slobodan Kovač commented.

Georgia vs. Israel

In the first match of Day 5 in Pool C, Georgia fought hard again, but Israel’s players showed their good shape and won the game in a little more than an hour (3-0; 25-13, 25-22, 25-19). “We have an extremely young team and the experience from this tournament is really beneficial for us. We came here to do everything we can, we fought hard and this is what is the most important,” top scorer Dmitri Zemlianukhin said after Israel’s last match in Ljubljana.

Latvia vs. Portugal

In another exciting game, the last one on schedule, Portugal claimed their third victory and finished the competition in third place after stamping a 3-1 win (26-24, 23-25, 26-24, 25-17) in their matchup with Latvia. “The tournament was organised in a great way, congratulations to the Volleyball Federation of Slovenia. And of course, congratulations to Slovenia for their win and for their first FIVB World Championship appearance! We started the tournament by playing really bad, but now I am satisfied with the way we finished our duties here,” Portugal head coach Hugo Silva said.

Pool D in Tallinn (EST)

Romania vs. Hungary

The last competition day in Estonia’s capital brought three duels featuring neighbouring nations. The first one was between Romania and Hungary, with Romania rallying to a 3-0 victory (25-19, 26-24, 27-25). “We served better and our attitude was also superior. We were in a better mood, so to speak. However, if we look ahead, Hungary has three, four very promising young players,” said Romania’s team captain Laurentiu Lica.
Hungary coach Juan Manuel Barrial agreed that the opponents had more energy than his own players. “We were not at the same level in terms of aggressiveness than in the previous matches. We tried to fight with them, especially in the second and third sets but they closed the sets better,” he said.
Romania had started the tournament with straight losses to Estonia and Russia before netting three consecutive victories to finish the competition in third place. “We got better with each game, against Estonia and Russia we could not do much but after that we raised the level of our performance. Still, one thing we really have to learn is to be careful and to respect our opponent. Losing one set to Kosovo was really bad. It is a lesson for the future and especially for our younger players who have joined the national team quite recently,” Lica added.

Estonia vs. Russia

The last match of the tournament was also the most important one. A fully-packed Kalev sports hall witnessed a highly competitive match between the hosts and Russia, which ended 3-1 (21-25, 25-21, 25-18, 25-19) for the Volleyball superpower. At the beginning it looked like Russia would easily control the match as they stormed to 8-4 and 13-9 leads. However, after Andri Aganits netted a block point against Russian superstar Maxim Mikhailov, Estonia edged ahead at 17-16. After a tight battle it was Oliver Venno’s superb serve series that helped Estonia make it 24-20 in their favour – and ultimately cruise to a 25-21 set win. Estonia rallied to a 21-18 lead in the second set and the fans felt like only the sky was the limit for their heroes. However, they had not reckoned with Maksim Zhigalov. Russia head coach Sergey Shlyapnikov decided he would go to the serving line by the score of 20-21. Zhigalov netted three aces out of five serves and decided the outcome of the set and maybe even more.
“His serves were truly decisive. With that, we let Russia get back their confidence and in the third and fourth sets there were moments where the difference in power between the two teams was evident,” said Estonia outside hitter Robert Täht, who added that Shlyapnikov’s decision to replace starting setter Sergey Grankin with Dmitry Kovalev in the middle of the second set made the difference as well. Dmitrii Volkov replaced Yury Berezhko and he also chiefly contributed to the Russian victory. “It worked in our favour that we have so many equally strong players. Still at the beginning of the match we were too tense, Estonia had a superb serve and a raucous support from their fans. The end of the second set was very important considering the outcome of the match and in the third and fourth sets our players were more relaxed,” Shlyapnikov said.

Kosovo vs. Montenegro

Montenegro rallied to a 3-0 victory (25-15, 25-9, 25-15) in this duel featuring two Balkan countries. It was the second victory for Montenegro in the competition, enough to finish the tournament in fourth place. “We started our preparations a bit late, some our players came back from injuries and some ended their club season as early as in February. We had a very good game against Russia and the match with Estonia was also very, very close but in the last two games we were very tired,” said Montenegro head coach Veljko Basić. As soon as on Friday, the team will start this year’s FIVB World League campaign.
Kosovo men’s national team, which is taking their first steps on the international stage, ended the tournament with five losses but won their first ever set on the third day of the tournament when they faced Romania. “This tournament was a very good experience for us. Physically we were not very good because our preparation lasted only ten days and as a result, our game swayed a lot. Sometimes we played really well, sometimes really bad,” team captain Valon Nikqi commented.

Pool E in Zagreb (CRO)

Norway vs. Switzerland

Switzerland completed their spectacular campaign in Zagreb with a third victory in five matches, this time edging Norway 3-2 (24-26, 25-21, 20-25, 25-23, 15-10). The Swiss players were probably still tired and fatigued following their five-set match with Belarus and Norway caught the better start, taking the first set 26-24. Although they still looked physically exhausted, the Swiss fought back in the second set, reducing the number of mistakes – Jovan Djokic and especially Sébastien Steigmeier made the difference as the latter served for four times in a row in the late stages of the second set, thus securing a 25-21 win. The still winless Norwegians were hoping to finish the tournament on a high note and delivered a very solid performance in set three, thus taking it 25-20. Switzerland, however, did not tremble and the starting six paid back the trust shown by the coaching staff with a 25-23 win. The tiebreak was a close race up to 7-all but after the side switch Switzerland broke away to celebrate their third victory of the week (15-10).

Scott Olsen, head coach of Norway: “As we prepared for this tournament, we had to raise the level of our game to a much higher level than what we are used to in our national league. We had to adapt to a strong service, opponents being a lot taller and to a faster game as well. We made some progress, but I am not happy with the results we achieved. We need to continue building our team, and next year hopefully we will achieve some good results in the qualifications for the 2019 edition of the European Championship.”

Mario Motta, head coach of Switzerland: “We have done something really big at this tournament. I have to thank all players for believing in this team and the staff. The players remained focussed on every match. I think that none before coming to this tournament thought we could play for second place in the pool. I am really happy for my players and for the staff as well.”

Croatia vs. Serbia

There was not much at stake in the ‘derby’ between Serbia and Croatia, with Serbia having already secured their participation in the 2018 FIVB World Championship the night before and Croatia being out of contention for a spot in the next round of qualifications. Croatia, however, had nothing to lose and started very relaxed, thus leading 10-6 before Serbia stormed back to make it 16-14 in their favour at the second technical time-out. It was a very close race until the end with the two teams exchanging the lead back and forth until Serbia prevailed at 25-23. Serbia looked more composed and determined in the second set, leading the way from start to end (25-16). The third set was kind of the same with Serbia claiming an early lead to capitalise on and finish the tournament unbeaten – without dropping a single set in five matches (25-21). Marko Sedlaček and Aleksandar Atanasijević top scored for Croatia and Serbia with 12 and 11 points, respectively. Marko Ivović also scored 11 times for the winners.
Ivan Rančić, head coach of Croatia: “It is a pity that we started to play well in the last game of the tournament. This game showed that we have great potential. We are going to get screwed in with this young team, as their talent gives us the hope to do even better. We will gather again in June to lay the foundations for what is expected in the near future.”
Dragan Stanković, captain of Serbia: “We were confident we would go straight to the World Championship from here but we took this tournament and every match very seriously. We were the favourites on paper, but we had to prove it on the court. Our team has participated in all major Volleyball competitions for many years and this has been achieved through hard work and the good cooperation developed among all those involved.”

Belarus vs. Denmark  

Belarus had to claim their matchup with Denmark if they wanted to finish second in the pool – and so they did (3-1; 25-23, 25-23, 19-25, 25-23). They started the match in the best way, leading 8-4 and by keeping the number of mistakes down to a minimum and with the help of their star player Pavel Kuklinski, Belarus claimed the first set 25-23. Denmark set the tempo for most of the second set up to 23-21; at this stage, Andrei Pratasenia went to serve for Belarus and his side scored four times in a row to double their lead in the match. Denmark stormed back by taking the third set but Belarus were not going to let it go – the match was too important and by stepping up in the fourth set, they sealed a 3-1 victory to make sure they progress to the third round of qualifications. Rasmus Breuning Nielsen and Kuklinski top scored for Denmark and Belarus with 17 and 16 points, respectively.

Siarhei Busel, team captain of Belarus: “This was a very difficult tournament with five games in a row. The whole team is tired and it was difficult to play this last game. We are happy because we are going to the third round of qualifications.”

Axel Jacobsen, team captain of Denmark: “There was tiredness from yesterday’s game. We played with six, seven players in this tournament, and Belarus had a longer bench with good substitutes, so they were cooler than us. If we had not felt such tiredness, we would certainly have played better. For us this was a good tournament, we started not so well, but we got better with each match. Now we have the European League in front of us and there is no time to rest.”

Pool F in Karlovy Vary (CZE)

Sweden vs. Cyprus

The final day of Pool F in Karlovy Vary started with a victory for Sweden over Cyprus. However, it was not easy for the heavy pre-favourites of this match, Sweden. After two sets, it was Cyprus, who was leading 2-0. However, Sweden swept the following three sets and after a celebrating a 3-2 victory (19-25, 25-27, 27-25, 25-21, 15-13) they leave the tournament on Czech soil with two wins from Northern Ireland and Cyprus. The Cyprus side beat only Northern Ireland but they deserve thumbs up for the big fight they put up against Sweden. Their head coach Evangelos Koutouleas was quite positive about this tournament: “The end of the match is a little bit bitter for us because if you check the points scored, we have the very same number of points. But that’s Volleyball, it’s a great sport. We had a chance to win 3-0, but we didn’t close the third set and that’s it. We have many positives to take from this tournament. There was always a great atmosphere and it was very supportive. We did not play that many games before the tournament so for us it was a big and good preparation for the Games of the Small States of Europe, which we will contest from tomorrow.”

Spain vs. Northern Ireland

In the second game of the day, Spain comfortably beat Northern Ireland 3-0 (25-15, 25-20, 25-12). However, it was not the best performance by the Spaniards. The second set was close and there Northern Ireland were close to causing a real sensation. “I think we played a good tournament. We lost only one game. Now we have to wait for the other match. I hope Finland will win. I think that we controlled the game from the beginning to the end. We played the way we wanted, so I’m happy with the result,” Spanish team captain Jorge Fernandez Valcarcel said.

Czech Republic vs. Finland

The last match of the tournament was the most important one for both sides. The Finnish team needed to win just two sets to make sure they would finish first in the pool. And that was obviously their primary goal: “The game went exactly the way we planned – to take two sets and be sure that we will go to the World Championship. The home team was really great, and they have something I have never seen before,” Finnish captain Eemi Tervaportti said. After taking the second set, the team of Finland started to celebrate as they knew that they had qualified to the World Championship taking place next year in Italy and Bulgaria. For the Czechs, there was still a chance – by winning three sets in a row, they could have finished second in the pool. They knew that the Finnish squad could play relaxed and just enjoy the match and could even lose it. In the third set, the Czechs left everything on the court and they won it (25-23). The sports hall almost blew up and everybody was convinced that the boys could make it. Unfortunately, the Finnish team did not want to leave any doubts about their supremacy in the group, and by winning the match 3-1, they made sure Spain would take second place in the pool and progress to the next round of qualifications.  
Finland head coach Tuomas Sammelvuo could not find the right words after this superb tournament: “Well, we played an amazing tournament. The idea was to grow with each match, moment by moment and today we needed to leave everything we had on the court. We have really amazing players and they really enjoyed playing together. I think that it’s amazing to see how they played. Also, I have to thank the fans, they were really great. I’m very happy for them! We played a solid tournament… I can’t find any more words now.”

Click here for more info including detailed stats of the matches

News nr. 9 of 25
31/05/2017 11:01:00
Flashback – Six teams qualify to 2018 Men’s World Championship
27/05/2017 23:43:00
Serbia qualify to 2018 Worlds, while it comes down to the wire in all other pools

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