Milad Ebadipour spikes against the block of Alan Souza and Isac Santos during a VNL 2021 game

Milad Ebadipour spikes against the block of Alan Souza and Isac Santos during a VNL 2021 game

Both Brazil and Iran have been on a rollercoaster ride so far in this year’s Volleyball Nations League, so as they meet each other in Sofia on Friday the outcome is tough to predict. The clash between the reigning 2021 continental champions of South America and Asia is set to start at 16:30 local time (13:30 GMT).

· Watch all VNL 2022 matches live on Volleyball TV.

On Thursday, defending champions Brazil put an end to a three-game losing streak with a straight-set victory over Serbia to improve to a 3-3 win-loss record and 11 points, and occupy the seventh place in the current standings. Following Tuesday’s loss to winless Bulgaria in three sets, Iran swept unbeaten USA to hand them their first defeat of the tournament and also improved to 3-3 to stand ninth in the table on 9 points.

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Lucarelli was Brazil’s best scorer against Serbia on Thursday

It will be Brazil and Iran’s 19th head-to-head encounter in major world-level competitions. The Asian side has won only three of the previous 18, with all three dating back to the 2014 FIVB Volleyball World League. The South Americans are riding the wave of a nine-match winning run against Iran. Four of the last five Brazilian victories have been achieved in VNL matches, with a 2019 FIVB Volleyball World Cup four-set win squeezed in between.

The first three VNL meetings between Brazil and Iran, one in 2018 and two in 2019, were resolved in five-set battles. When they last crossed ways on June 16, 2021 in Rimini, the South Americans celebrated a 3-1 (25-19, 23-25, 25-19, 25-21) victory with outside hitter Ricardo Lucarelli producing the match high of 20 points, followed by opposite Alan Souza (on 16), who is the best scorer of VNL 2022 so far on a total 110 points over six games played.

Brazil went on to finish the VNL 2021 Preliminary Round on top of the standings on a 13-2 win-loss record and then added two more victories in the Finals to triumph with their first title in the competition, while Iran finished 12th on 5-10. At the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games next, the South Americans made the semifinals to finish fourth, while the Asians failed to make it past the pool stage to place ninth. To end the 2021 season, both teams claimed their continental trophies in September.

Brazil’s current squad this week in Sofia features as many as eight Tokyo Olympians, led by setter and captain Bruno Rezende and including Lucarelli, Alan, second setter Fernando Kreling, outside Yoandy Leal, middle blockers Lucas Saatkamp and Isac Santos, and libero Thales Hoss.

The Iranian roster in Bulgaria, however, includes only two of last year’s Olympians – outside hitters Morteza Sharifi and captain Milad Ebadipour. The latter was also on the team that won the 2021 Asian Championship in Japan, together with another seven athletes who are in Sofia this week – setter Ali Ramezani, opposite Amin Esmaeilnezhad, outsides Esmaeil Mosaferdashliboroun and Amirhossein Esfandiar, middles Mahdi Jelveh Ghaziani and Amir Hossein Toukhteh, and libero Mohammadreza Hazratpourtalatappeh.

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Amin Esmaeilnezhad led Iran to victory over USA on Thursday

After their encounter with Iran on Friday, Brazil will also play against hosts Bulgaria on Sunday before their trip to Osaka for the last competition week of the Preliminary Round. Iran will face Canada on Saturday and then head to Gdansk for week three.

Friday’s VNL action will start in Quezon City with a game between Germany and the Netherlands, followed by Argentina against China and Japan against Italy. The day’s programme in Sofia will open with a match between Serbia and Canada and close with an important battle between Australia and Bulgaria that might prove crucial in the race to avoid relegation.