There will be no clear favourites among the men as the 2021 FIVB Volleyball Nations League enters week 3 of the Preliminary Round in Rimini, Italy, on Wednesday.

Each of the 16 teams competing in the event experienced a setback at least once over the first two weeks and the eight top-ranked national teams are within striking distance, meaning the result of a single match has the power to strongly impact the position of several teams.

The 2021 VNL’s ‘Elite Eight’ is currently formed by Poland (15 points), Brazil (15), France (14), Russia (13), Slovenia (12), Iran (12), Serbia (11) and Germany (11), but USA (9), Japan (8) and Canada (7) are not far behind.

The next three days in Rimini will be busy with 24 matches and here are three that can drastically interfere in the fates of the teams involved.

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Who? France vs. Russia

When? Wednesday, June 9, 11:00 GMT

Why? Only one point separates the two European giants and both could end the day at the top of the standings depending on other results. The French were the last undefeated team standing until they lost to Serbia in their fifth match. The team’s opposites were on fire in week 2 with Jean Patry delivering 20 points against Brazil and 19 against Japan while Stephen Boyer had 26 against the Serbians. The Russians can be just as confident about their main offensive option as Olympic champion opposite Maxim Mikaylov is currently the VNL’s second-best scorer with 102 points and ranks third in aces with ten. The team had two solid victories against the USA and Australia to start week 2, but ended it losing 3-1 to Poland.

Jean Patry (FRA)

Who? Serbia vs. Iran

When? Thursday, June 10, 8:00 GMT

Why? Serbia were in the spotlight in week 2 after the team ended France’s unbeaten run in the VNL, but couldn’t end the week with a perfect record as they were downed by reigning Olympic champions Brazil 3-1. Iran, on the other hand, took nine points with victories against Canada, Italy and Bulgaria. This meeting will put two of the best setters in the tournament face to face, Serbia’s Nikola Jovovic, who tops the stats with 172 sets, and Iran’s captain Saeid Marouf, who made his VNL debut in week 2 and appeared in all three matches, heavily impacting the team’s performance. There’s also strong firepower on both sides as Serbian outside hitter Marko Ivovic and Iranian opposite Saber Kazemi rank third and fifth among the tournament’s top scorers with 86 and 72 points, respectively.

Iranian star setter Marouf has contributed to the team's perfect record in week 2

Iranian star setter Marouf has contributed to the team's perfect record in week 2

Who? Poland vs. Brazil

When? Friday, June 11, 19:00 GMT

Why? These teams have won the last five editions of the FIVB Volleyball World Championships and rank first and second in the VNL standings at the beginning of the week. The Polish are on fire and collected all nine points in week 2 following victories against Australia, USA and Russia, while the Brazilians lost to France in their first match of the week but bounced back with triumphs against Japan and Serbia. Head coach Vital Heynen has been heavily rotating Poland’s lineup from match to match thanks to the roster’s great depth, but some players have been able to stand out including outside hitter Wilfredo Leon, the VNL’s top server with 20 aces, and middle blocker Mateusz Bieniek, the tournament’s fifth-best blocker with 12. Brazil have counted on outside hitter Douglas Souza registering 69 points and middle blocker Isac Santos getting 13 blocks and their lineup could get even stronger with the arrival of star middle blocker Lucas Saatkamp.

Wilfredo Leon (POL)