Anna Podkopaeva in action

Russia registered a series of wins in their last three matches of the 2021 FIVB Women’s Volleyball Nations League, a change from their shaky performance in the first nine in which they tallied a 5-4 win-loss record. Between Weeks 3 and 4, two players joined the team competing in Rimini, including libero Anna Podkopaeva, who seems to have had a positive impact on the team.

Formerly known by her maiden name Malova, Anna Podkopaeva had not played for the national team in official competition since the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, where she topped the charts for best digger of the tournament and was the third best receiver. Between 2013 and 2016, the libero collected 96 official caps with the Russian national team, claiming two EuroVolley titles and two FIVB Volleyball World Grand Prix medals as well as the Best Libero award at the 2015 editions of both competitions.

The 31-year-old player’s return to the national team after a long absence was announced in the summer of 2020, but no official games were played because of the pandemic. She did, however, take part in the Kaliningrad Oblast Governer’s Cup invitational in August. Podkopaeva was also on the national team roster preparing for the 2021 season, but did not travel to Rimini for the start of the VNL.

Anna Podkopaeva and 24-year-old opposite Anna Lazareva joined the Russian team last week, before the fourth batch of three VNL matches, and they have not lost a single set since. Three speedy clean-slate victories over South Korea, Canada and Serbia followed and Russia improved to 8-4 in fifth place in the standings to put themselves in a good position to target the Final Four with three games remaining. While Lazareva helped as a substitution in each of the three wins, Podkopaeva contributed full-time among Russia’s main seven on the court, stabilising the reception and playing brilliantly in defence.

“We had new players on the squad, so we had to find our cohesion on the court. It is very important that we do well in reception and defence. We played much better in the back court today, in both reception and defence, and all this is thanks to Podkopaeva,” Russia’s captain Evgeniya Startseva said after the victory over Korea.

“It has been a team effort,” Podkopaeva modestly declined to take the full credit, speaking after the win over Canada. “Every victory at this tournament is important as it gives us confidence in our abilities. It feels great to be back on the team! I’ve played with the girls before and I get tremendous pleasure from the game, from volleyball.”

“Our first perfect match in the VNL” was one of the headlines in Russian media.

“The arrival of Anna Podkopaeva and Anna Lazareva gave confidence to our volleyballers. The level of play has significantly increased. The overall confidence and teamwork improved due to improved defence with the appearance of libero Podkopaeva,” they analyzed, and concluded, “It seems that Busato has made up his mind on the main line-up for the Olympics...”

Three more matches await Russia in Week 5 of the league stage in Rimini, all of them solid encounters with strong opponents - China, USA and Poland.

“I think what we had this week was the calm before the storm,” middle blocker Irina Koroleva said after the third consecutive straight-set victory, over Serbia. “Next week we will have the most difficult opponents, so we have to direct all our thoughts in that direction.”