EuroVolley: A Russian king and a deck of aces

The 2013 CEV VELUX European Volleyball championship final tallied with the end of the summer for the national teams. While the main actors already joined their old or new clubs in a hectic preparation for the new season, we, the fans, are still reliving the memories of the games in Poland and Denmark. It might not have been the most perfect event for some teams or due to certain reasons, but Volleycountry is going to use the last chance prior to the club calendar launch and to present you the upsurges and the lapses during the last ten days of September.

So much has been said and written about Russia’s results at the 2013 European Championship that we will surely avoid getting into details. The senior male team has won every official competition it has entered since the 2012 Olympic Games. As a matter of fact, a defence of next year’s World League title and the gold at the 2014 World Championships in Poland will see the reigning Euro champs in possession of all major crowns at the same time. Ever since that unhinged third set in London we’ve seen a different Sbornaya than the one we used to know. Immediately after the Olympic gold Vladimir Alekno resigned from his job, but his inheritor Andrey Voronkov did something of no less value. The head coach of Lokomotiv Novosibirsk changed a large part of Alekno’s golden roster, something usually considered contrary to popular expectations in terms of winning squads, but did so to extend the Russian dominance even further. He sacrificed the Olympic gold architect, the Belorussian-born setter Alexander Butko (Russia is only allowed to register one non-native player), in order to find a worthy alternative of Maxim Mikhaylov. The Ukrainian-born Nikolay Pavlov, called up in the main team for the first time this year at the age of 31, was, in fact, so impressive that Mikhaylov spent most of the summer on the bench. With the absence of Butko, Sergey Grankin, undoubtedly the best playmaker in the finals in Copenhagen, received the key role once again. The biggest change happened in reception where Alexey Verbov returned as a starting libero, whereas the controversial Alexey Spiridonov and Zenit Kazan’s Evgeny Sivozhelez were a first choice of Voronkov in position four. The new head coach has surely done a great job learning his lads to dig, mark and make devastating defence-attack transitions. Spiridonov-Sivozhelez certainly reduced the attack efficiency of the team in comparison to Khtey-Tetyukhin, but they were both part of Voronkov’s mechanism despite the ups and downs they might have demonstrated at times. However, in the decisive games in Mar del Plata and Copenhagen Spiridonov and Sivozhelez were mostly there for Grankin when he needed them.

There are two silent stars that made the difference in 2013 and shaped Sbronaya to a least desirable opponent these days. Dmitriy Muserskiy, especially after his lunatic demonstration of power in London, is already among world’s best middles (if not THE best one). Someone who can easily finish as a top scorer despite being out of court half of the time. The other key player probably deserves a separate analysis as he is more rarely mentioned by journalists and experts – Nikolay Pavlov. Pavlov was already an interesting player much before he appeared with the national team jersey, but who would venture to predict he would fit so well to Voronkov’s hegemonic army not until the age of 31. If you have watched him during the World League or the European Championship, can you remember him make a mistake in a decisive for Russia moment? I already know the answer, you probably can’t. Modern volleyball has seen competitors grow taller and stronger for the past twenty years, making the game more physical and challenging that it ever used to be, but Pavlov came on stage just to remind us it could actually be otherwise. Unknown to many statisticians till now, the opposite of Gubernia Nizhny Novgorod is still difficult to counter and few coaches are able to find a way to do so. His most spectacular advantage is the arsenal of tools he uses. He might not be as powerful as other point scorers and you will almost never see him kill, let’s say, twenty-five balls a game, but he is a master of playing with the block, of finding that perfect angle for attack, be it a hole in the block, line or diagonal attacks. A past-master of cleverly chosen tips and different levels of serve risks. But most of all Pavlov impressed with his unusual, regularly (since years) high +/- efficiency. Translated into plain English, it means his abilities to not give away points and play often without making visible mistakes.

To close the topic of the rich Russian pool of talent and capabilities in the hands of Andrey Voronkov, I will just remind you that Sbornaya won all the major junior and youth titles in 2013 in addition to the triumph of the already mentioned Lokomotiv Novosibirsk in the CEV Champions League. Perhaps the only crown missing would be an embryonic age group one.

Mauro Berruto‘s Italy decorated their necks with another set of medals, repeating the silver finish from Vienna two years ago. A questionable defeat to Belgium in the group stage paved the way of the “blues” to Copenhagen, avoiding Serbia in the quarterfinals. The second consecutive final for Italy has been achieved thanks to two players most of all. Two outstanding figures that proved their cost in Berruto’s tactics. I guess you can easily recognize their presence. Simone Parodi was well taken care of by the Italian staff to make it for the battle against Bulgaria – an opponent Italy is no longer afraid to play against. Having started the semifinal from the bench, Parodi helped the young promising libero Salvatore Rossini stabilize the reception and gradually Italy found its winning rhythm after the devastating opener. However, undoubtedly the brightest Italian star at the 2013 Euro Volley was a youngster, whose name the world first learned practically a few months before when he came in on court for his club Copra Elior Piacenza to replace the legend Alessandro Fei. Fearless and reliable when being passed to, Luca Vettori grabbed CEV’s Best Spiker award at Parken. He was often the main threat for the mighty Russia in the final and surely caused much trouble to Camilo Placi and his Bulgarian side. As a matter of fact, Vettori was also among the heroes of the 2013 World League when he substituted Ivan Zaytsev in Mar del Plata to eventually bring his country the bronze medals.

The 2011 European champions of Serbia were on the verge of flying back home already on day three of the competition. A shaky start marked by a sudden 1-3 defeat to Slovenia and two sets down against The Netherlands flagged a real danger for Igor Kolakovic and his young roster. An absolute necessary three-point win versus a relaxed and comforted Finland, however, embarked Serbia with last-minute tickets on the ship to the next round. Their game is not a novelty to the volleyball world. Serbia again demonstrated their unique team spirit that has won them so much over the past fifteen years. Truth being told, Nikola Jovovic, whom I often criticized for his fluctuating Bundesliga performances with VfB Friedrichshafen, enjoyed a great championship. Jovovic grew as a setter and finally gave Kolakovic an alternative for the playmaker’s position. Vlado Petkovic sat on the bench and all of a sudden Serbia looked changed. Aleksandar Atanasijevic might’ve been quiet next to the tall Russian block in the semis, but he flew out in the bronze medal game against a discouraged Bulgaria. The new signing of Berlin Recycling Volleys Srecko Lisinac stepped in the shoes of the captain Dragan Stankovic, whereas Nikola Kovacevic and Milos Nikic were remarkable in a number of occasions. Kovacevic’s insane attack stats in the elimination round should have definitely attracted everyone’s attention.

The top four analysis finishes with the disappointing last weekend of Bulgaria. Debatable or not, the fourth consecutive fourth place for the “lions” is shadowy because of many reasons. The semifinal curse to start with, the weak medal games performance, the silent Tsvetan Sokolov and so on. No one denies the world class of Camilo Placi’s team, but it is high time they supported their status with some podium finishes. Tsvetan Sokolov single-handedly beat Poland in Gdansk with his 35 points, but the Trentino BetClic’s opposite certainly lacks the consistency to keep his momentum. Prior to the Parken showdown many appreciated the enthusiasm shown by Bulgaria against Poland and Germany. Such was the euphoria of these two wins that everyone thought of wishing for some more. Well, technically Bulgaria showed the least of all four medal contenders and, quite expectedly, as a result watched the award ceremony among the spectators on the stands. The nation’s hopes are linked to the next 2015 Euro Championship finals being organized in “Arena Armeets” in Sofia. Then Bulgaria will have no right to let fans down.

And to please those eager to correct me that the European Championship was not played only in Copenhagen we should grant credit to the four quarterfinalists that won, much to everyone’s bewilderment, the preliminary pools. Belgium, Finland, France and Germany all entered the tournament as underdogs (not entirely valid for France, but you get the idea) and all caught the favourites napping (with the slight remark about the Italy-Belgium clash). Had they not met the mighty Russians in the quarterfinals, based on how well “les blues” act defensively and how irritating for vigorous attackers this is, the lads of Laurent Tillie might’ve even found themselves on Danish soil at the end of September. France did a notable World League campaign and, excluding the games against Bulgaria and the USA, showed skills to appear in the semis. Earvin Ngapeth, however, was not enough to stop Sbornaya in Gdansk and France had to settle with a fifth place, which guarantees them a 2015 Euro Volley qualification waiver.

The two co-hosts left the tournament in polar, contrasting fractions of the joy scale. Whereas Denmark, a newcomer in European volleyball, was more than delighted with the tie-break win over Belarus that eventually sent them to a playoff against the reigning back then Euro champs Serbia, Poland were knocked out in the same stage by a brave Bulgarian side. This would never be considered enough in one of the volleyball heavens on Earth, even if Poland played its best volleyball in that playoff since the 2012 World League. Pressure had already started to pile up around Andrea Anastasi after the lean 2012 Olympic and 2013 World League campaign and the defeat to Bulgaria (a third one in three official games this year) might cost his job. I am not really sure whether sacking your coach less than a year before the home World Championship is the best solution, but we know very well the hunger for success of the Polish Federation. If Anastasi loses his job, the only reasonable choice for a new head coach should be a Polish one.

Kudos to two other teams that impressed in different ways during the first days of the championship. Vital Heynen‘s Germany was definitely the best performing squad after three days of actions. But the Bundesteam showed its other face in the rematch against Bulgaria in Gdansk. The well functioning machine from Gdynia was gone and all their efforts to stay atop of Pool D at the expense of Russia were in vain. One of the most dedicated youth volleyball schools in Europe, namely the Belgian one, is finally harvesting what they have worked on for several years. Led by the experienced setter Frank Depestele, Dominique Baeyens‘ boys grew a lot as a team and had a real chance of causing a Serbian dethronation in the quarterfinals.

As someone who had the honour to watch the finals live at Parken, I should say the Danish organizers did a decent job to impress volleyball Europe and to ignite the love for volleyball in local boys and girls. I must, on the other side, share my thoughts about the impropriety of a football stadium hosting the finals. As innovative and historic the idea was, the local climate would not allow such a transformation to be held seamlessly. There is physically no way to heat up an entire stadium, even if the workers had done a perfect job covering the open area. The scarf worn by Ivan Zaytsev during the time-outs in the gold medal game says enough. Media representatives and fans needed their jackets to enjoy the lengthy actions on court. Surprisingly, not all four teams could get access to the warm changing rooms and one of them was forced to use a shed-like construction for the weekend. Of course, I refrain myself from calling the event poorly organized or to expect perfect conditions all around, but perhaps the whole idea should’ve been better planned and executed well in advance.

That being said, Copenhagen and its tall heroes in national team jerseys will be missed as we enter the club season.

Pictures: CEV

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