Sliwka spikes against Esfandiar’s block in a VNL 2021 match

Sliwka spikes against Esfandiar’s block in a VNL 2021 match

Poland could be the first team to secure a spot alongside hosts Italy at the men’s Volleyball Nations League 2022 Finals in Bologna from July 20 to 24, if they defeat Iran in their opening match of the week in Gdansk on Tuesday. The reigning world champions will take on the reigning Asian champions at 20:00 local time (18:00 GMT) on the first competition day of the third and last week of this year’s Preliminary Phase.

· Watch all VNL 2022 matches live on Volleyball TV.

After the first two weeks of competition, Poland are second on a 7-1 win-loss record and 21 points, just below leaders France on set ratio. Should they win against Iran on Tuesday, they will be guaranteed a place in the top eight, above the advancement cut-off line. Iran are currently in eighth place on 4-4 and 12 points. Poland’s only defeat so far came at the hands of Italy in their second match of the tournament. They have been on a six-game winning streak since then. Iran, on the other hand, have been alternating wins and losses in the two competition weeks so far.

It will be the 24th encounter between the two rivals at major world-level competitions. The Poles have won 15 of the previous 23. In the VNL alone, the head-to-head series is tied at two victories apiece. In last year’s competition, on June 22, 2021 in Rimini, Poland produced a 3-0 (25-20, 25-20, 25-16) shutout of Iran, with middle blocker Jakub Kochanowski delivering the match high of 12 points, while Iran’s outside hitter Morteza Sharifi scored 11. The European side went on to claim silver, their second VNL podium, on a 13-4 win-loss record, while the Asian team finished 12th on 5-10.

Iran and Poland’s most recent encounter took place about a month later at the Olympic Games. In their opening match at Tokyo 2020 on July 24, the Iranians emerged victorious in an extended tie-breaker after a five-set battle, 3-2 (18-25, 25-22, 25-22, 22-25, 23-21). As it turned out, it was Poland’s only defeat in the pool stage and they advanced to the quarterfinals as Pool A winners, while Iran finished fifth in the pool on 2-3, just below the line for advancement.

Poland’s squad for the week in Gdansk includes as many as seven Tokyo 2020 Olympians: opposites Bartosz Kurek (VNL 2021 Most Valuable Player) and Lukasz Kaczmarek, outside hitters Aleksander Sliwka and Kamil Semeniuk, middle blockers Mateusz Bieniek (VNL 2021 Dream Teamer) and Jakub Kochanowski, and libero Pawel Zatorski.

Iran arrived in Poland with a line-up including only two of their Olympians, outside hitters Morteza Sharifi and captain Milad Ebadipour. However, it features as many as seven of the players who contributed to winning the continental title at the September 2021 Asian Championship. In addition to Ebadipour, these are opposite Amin Esmaeilnezhad, outside Amirhossein Esfandiar, middles Amir Hossein Toukhteh and Mahdi Jelveh, and liberos Mohammadreza Hazratpourtalatappeh and Abolfazl Gholipour.

Iran’s remaining matches in Gdansk are against Italy on Thursday, Slovenia on Friday and Serbia on Saturday, while Poland have games against China on Thursday, the Netherlands on Saturday and Slovenia on Sunday.

Before the teams of Iran and Poland take to the court at the Ergo Arena, it will be Bulgaria and Italy who open this week’s action in Gdansk three hours earlier. Action is already underway in the other pool in Osaka, where USA and Germany opened Tuesday’s programme to be followed by a duel between Canada and Argentina.