Poland and Brazil lead the race after Day 8 of the 2021 FIVB Men's Volleyball Nations League which continues at Italy's Adriatic resort of Rimini, after both scored solid wins and took advantage of France stumbling on Thursday.
Poland, Brazil on collision course at Men's VNL
Slovenia knock down France; blocking record and 300th cap for Podrascanin; three teams chasing leaders
Published 11:03, 10 Jun 2021
But it all boils down to the very last match of Week 3 on Friday night, when Poland and Brazil go head-to-head in a rematch of the last two FIVB Volleyball World Championships finals.
It took Poland one hour and 14 minutes to deal with the Netherlands in straight sets and stay at the very top of the standings - just one set separating them from Brazil.
Both sides rotated their starting lineups, Mateusz Bienek eventually emerging top scorer of the game on 16 points. Nimir Abdel-Aziz was the Netherlands' best scorer, but that was only at 5 points - though he still leads in the table of the tournament's top scorers.
Brazil, meanwhile, found little resistance from Bulgaria and Ricardo Lucarelli hammered away five aces to close the match in straight sets in just over an hour.
It was no contest, as Brazil's overall attacking reached 67% (38/57) with Lucarelli himself at an unstoppable 83% (10/12) and a match high score of 15 points.
But Slovenia provided the spectacular upset of the day, coming back from two sets down to beat France and throw them off the top of the table standings - leaving now only Poland and Brazil at 6-1.
The 2021 VNL rookies are now on par with France, at 5-2, and very much in with a chance at a ticket for the Final Four.
Teenager Rok Mozic came off the bench to replace Ziga Stern in the first set and stayed on to collect the match high of 20 points with a 61% (19/31) attacking efficiency.
France could have finished it off in three when they came into the twenties leading by two at 21-19 in the third. But back-to-back kills by Mozic saw Slovenia draw level. And a little later Mozic again attacked to take Slovenia to set point, Stephen Boyer squandering France's opportunity for a sideout to extend the set.
Slovenia broke away quickly in the tie-break, opening up a gap that France never managed to close.
Alongside France and Serbia, Slovenia, all on 6-2, are now hot on the heels of the two table leaders Poland and Brazil.
In the Serbia camp, Marko Podrascanin had a triple celebration on Thursday with a decisive win over Iran in five sets, his 300th cap with the national Team plus a record-tying individual blocking record.
The 33-year-old middle blocker was instrumental in Serbia's win, blocking his opponents eight times to tie the VNL record of most blocks in a single match set by USA's Max Holt in 2019 against France.
Podrascanin continues to lead the competition best blockers list, now on 28, ahead of Ilia Vlasov of Russia (19) and Tobias Krick of Germany (18).
Drazen Luburic attacked for 66% (21/32) and bagged the match high of 23 points, with Uros Kovacovic adding another 20 for Serbia.
Iran had Mohammad Taher Vadi on setting duties, Saeid Marouf just coming in off the bench briefly in the last three sets.
Japan also advanced to 5-3 on Thursday, but only after a long and hard fight against an Italian side that fielded a number of reserves, coach Antonio Valentini resting his key players ahead of Friday's game against Australia.
Yuki Ishikawa and Ran Takahashi shared the top-scoring honours of the game on 19 points each for Japan.
In other VNL action on Thursday, defending champions Russia were powered by Maxim Mikhaylov who returned to his top-scoring ways and got the match high of 22 in their four-set win over Canada.
Russia outblocked Canada 15 to 5 (6 from Ilia Vlasov alone), but at 5-3 they have fallen quite far behind in the race for the tickets to the semifinals.
And Argentina advanced slightly to 3-5 after overwhelming Australia for a quick win.
The South Americans are on par with Germany after USA dominated the latter on the net also in three sets.
USA had Kawika Shoji on setting duties for the second day in a row, after their previous day's defeat to Iran.