Lausanne, Switzerland, August 9, 2019 - Argentina registered a huge win over Canada 3-1 (25-23, 22-25, 27-25, 25-23) that could very well prove decisive in the race for a ticket to the men's volleyball tournament of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, as 24 teams opened their campaigns Friday in search of the six open berths up for grabs this weekend.
But there was comeback drama elsewhere as well on the opening day of the six pools, Iran fighting back from two sets down against Cuba to stay alive in the race, as did the Netherlands against Korea.
In Ningbo, Argentina's victory puts them in pole position for a ticket from Pool F, though, of course they still need to deal with the obstacles of Finland and hosts China on the remaining two days. And if the women's tournaments of last week are anything to judge by, that may not be as straightforward as it seems.
Canada really missed their opportunity to go a set up after the third, when they came from behind and then failed to convert set points at 24-23 (a service error by Ryan Sclater) and 25-24 (when Stephen Maar was blocked by Luciano De Cecco). Eventually, Argentina got the set on their own second set ball when a Nicholas Hoag attack failed to touch his opponent's block.
Facundo Conte was the driving force behind Argentina's win, with 24 points and a 62% (21/34) attacking efficiency that helped the South Americans overcome the fact the fact that they were outblocked 11 to 5.
In the other match of Pool F, hosts China outlasted Finland 3-1 (25-22, 21-25, 25-22, 25-23) as Jiang Chuan celebrated his 25th birthday scoring 25 points to lead the Asian side and set the off on a collision course with Argentina on Sunday.
Iran stage huge comeback to stay on track
Iran were with their backs against the wall when they found themselves losing by two sets to none against Cuba in Saint Petersburg, but fought back to force a tie-break and promptly won that too for a final 3-2 (23-25, 26-28, 25-17, 25-16, 15-10) that keeps them on track for a showdown with Russia on the closing day of Pool A on Sunday.
Ali Shafiei bagged a match high of 20 points (including 15/18 for 83% in attack) but scoring for Iran was well-balanced with Milad Ebadipour and Amir Ghafour adding another 16 each.
Russia, a little later on in Saint Petersburg, found little resistance from Mexico and promptly scored a 3-0 (25-15, 25-11, 25-17) win in a match where coach Tuomas Sammelvuo gave time on court to all his players except for Egor Kliuka. At just over an hour, it was the quickest match of the day.
Defending Olympic champions off on right foot
In Varna, meanwhile, Brazil trailed Puerto Rico by a point or two for most of the first set, but came from behind to seal a solid 3-0 (25-23, 25-19, 25-19) win and set off on the right foot to be in Tokyo 2020 to defend their Rio 2016 Olympic title.
Ricardo Lucarelli with 14 points (of which four from blocks), Isac Santos with 13 (including 12/15 in attack for 80%) and Wallace de Souza with 12 all spearheaded Brazil.
A little later in Varna, hosts Bulgaria were all over Egypt in the first set, but blew two set points in the second and had to fend off as many as six of Egypt's before Svetoslav Gotsev served an ace on libero Ahmed Mohamed and Viktor Yosifov blocked Hisham Ewais for the last two points.
The African side did pull one back eventually in the third, but Bulgaria regrouped and claimed the win 3-1 (25-11, 33-31, 19-25, 25-19), on the back of 28 points by Tsvetan Sokolov.
Dutch pull off second comeback of the day
Taking a leaf out of Iran's book, the Netherlands also waited until they trailed Korea by two sets, before pulling together to turn the match around in Rotterdam for a 3-2 (23-25, 25-27, 26-24, 25-20, 15-12) win.
Korea could have sealed the upset in three sets, as they came cancelled two match points of the Dutch from 24-22 down to draw level at 24-24. The hosts blew one more set point at 25-24 before bringing the set home on a Na Gyeong-Bok attacking error.
Park Chul-Woo registered a match high 19 points for Korea, but Thijs Ter Horst and Nimir Abdel-Aziz each scored 16 for the Netherlands, who totally outblocked their opponents 16 to 5 (with five blocks each from Abdel-Aziz and Fabian Plak).
Three-time Olympic champions USA dropped a set but completed the Rotterdam action on Friday with minimal damage as they outplayed Belgium 3-1 (25-20, 25-19, 17-25, 25-18) led by Aaron Russell's match-high 19 points and Matt Anderson's 17 more.
France overcome first obstacle
France narrowly avoided what could have been serious trouble, persevering at the end of the first set and coming from behind in the third to seal a 3-0 (26-24, 25-20, 25-23) win that keeps them in position to challenge hosts Poland on Saturday in the Gdansk pool.
With France coach Laurent Tillie pulling out a couple of his starters in the third (probably to rest them ahead of Saturday's crucial game), Slovenia saw their chance and pounced, taking an 19-23 lead. But France made a 6-0 run, including three aces by Kevin Le Roux, to take the set and finish the match in three.
Earvin Ngapeth led the way for France, past the Slovenia blocking, on a match-high 14 points.
Reigning world champions Poland and hosts of the Gdansk pool had previously gotten off to a quick start to their campaign with a 3-0 (25-15, 25-19, 25-19) total domination of Tunisia in under an hour and a half.
Serbia secure very hard-earned win
Serbia avoided any serious complications when they rallied from a set down to edge Australia 3-1 (26-28, 25-19, 25-19, 32-30) in Bari - but had to fight hard for the win.
The 'Volleyroos' came from 22-24 behind in the first set cancelled one more set point of the Serbs and got it right on their second try of their own, with back-to-back aces by Paul Carroll on libero Nikola Pekovic and on Marko Ivovic.
Australia also had two opportunities to take the game into a tie-break, when they led 25-24, 29-28 but failed to capitalise. It took Serbia a total of six match balls to finish the job - the redeeming point coming from a Carroll attacking error.
Aleksandar Atanisjevic was man of the match, scoring the overall day's high across all pools of 35 points, including an amazing eight of his side's total 14 aces and an attacking efficiency of 66% (25/38).
Italy wrapped up the day's action with a clean sweep of Cameroon 3-0 (25-18, 25-18, 25-16) in Bari, with 13 points by Osmany Junatorena and 12 each by Ivan Zaytsev and Filippo Lanza.
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