Darlan spikes against Asparuhov’s block

20-year-old Darlan Souza was brilliant in covering for his injured older brother Alan Souza in the opposite’s position as Brazil shut out hosts Bulgaria in this week’s closing Volleyball Nations League 2022 game in Sofia on Sunday evening.

Alan had to sit out the game after getting injured during Brazil’s previous match against Iran, but Darlan stepped in to score 10 spiking points at a 53% success rate on the way to a 3-0 (25-21, 25-19, 25-22) victory, which lifted the defending champions to sixth in the current standings on a 5-3 win-loss record and 15 points. Bulgaria stayed second from bottom on 1-7 and six points.

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“I think Darlan did that for his brother too. These days were not easy for Alan, but Darlan put in all his energy, young energy that our team needs sometimes, and it was amazing!” Brazil’s setter and captain Bruno Rezende said after the match. “It was really great to see a young guy play like that against this Bulgarian team in this atmosphere, which isn’t easy. So I am very proud of him and I hope it’s just the beginning of his bright career.”

Darlan Souza’s top plays against Bulgaria

Unimpressed by the great ambience the home crowd created at Arena Armeets, Brazil built up a 9-6 lead early into the first set. A powerful serve by 18-year-old outside hitter Aleksandar Nikolov gave his teammate Martin Atanasov a great opportunity to kill the overpass, which he did to bring Bulgaria back to within one at 10-9. An ace by Brazilian star Yoandy Leal put his team at a 13-10 lead, shortly before Nikolov managed to draw level at 15-15 after two consecutive power kills in attack. But that was the last time the score was tied during this first set. Brazil scored three in a row to break away with another 18-15 advantage. The home team kept up the fight to get back to within one. A one-man monster block by Ricardo Lucarelli (one of his seven points in the set) gave Brazil a 23-20 lead, shortly before an elegantly placed short serve by Rezende hit the line to close the set at 25-21.

A momentary Bulgarian surge early into the second set was wiped away as Lucarelli chased a difficult ball, which Flavio Gualberto drove through the middle to level the score at 4-4. Brazil gradually took control to open a gap and never looked back. A brilliant Isac Santos delivered the 24-19 set point with a kill through the middle and immediately won a joust to convert it himself to a 25-19 win.

The young Bulgarian team refused to surrender just yet and kept the pressure on during set three. Setter Dobromir Dimitrov gave them a 6-5 lead with a two-hand sideways tip on two, before Asparuh Asparuhov extended to 7-5 with a beautiful ace. However, Brazil reacted swiftly again winning the next four rallies and taking control for good. Leal killed an overpass on Isac’s serve for a 13-9 Brazilian lead. The next strong serve by the middle blocker resulted in a monster block by Flavio for 14-9. In the epilogue, Darlan put a stop to a three-point Bulgarian run to bring in the match point at 24-20. Asparuhov scored twice in a row before Flavio’s unstoppable kill through the middle finally closed the match at 25-22.

Outsides Leal and Atanasov shared the top scorer honours with 12 points each, but while the latter was the only Bulgarian to tap into the double digits, Brazil had another four players do that. Isac and Lucarelli finished with 11 points apiece, while Darlan and Flavio scored 10 each.

“It was a beautiful week here in Sofia, with a beautiful crowd and amazing atmosphere,” Bruno Rezende added. “To finish with a win is always nice. Now we have to celebrate a little bit and rest our minds.”

From July 5 through 10, the last competition week of the men’s Preliminary Round, Brazil will travel to Osaka to play against Germany, Canada, France and hosts Japan, in that order, while Bulgaria take a trip to Gdansk for games against Italy, Slovenia, the Netherlands and China.

Shortly before the last match in Sofia, Poland handed USA their second defeat of the tournament. The world champions produced a 3-1 (21-25, 25-23, 26-24, 25-22) comeback victory on the wings of a 23-point match high by captain Bartosz Kurek, MVP of last year’s VNL edition, to rise to the second place in the current standings on a 7-1 win-loss record and 22 points, just behind leaders France on set ratio. USA stand fifth on 6-2 and 17.

Earlier on Sunday in the Bulgarian capital, Serbia hammered out a 3-0 (25-17, 25-20, 25-22) sweep of Australia to improve to 4-4 and 11 points in ninth place and leave the Volleyroos bottom of the table on 1-7 and two points. Serbia’s star opposite Aleksandar Atanasijevic was the top scorer of the match with 15 points to his name.