Three-men US block against Leal

The United States and Italy booked their spots in the men’s Volleyball Nations League 2022 semifinals. USA were the first team to advance after defeating defending champions Brazil at the start of the VNL Finals in Bologna on Wednesday. The North Americans came back from a set down to master a 3-1 (20-25, 25-22, 25-23, 25-17) victory in the opening quarterfinal and progress to the last four of the competition for the third time in history. Italy overcame the Netherlands in four sets, also coming from behind on the way to a 3-1 (21-25, 25-22, 25-13, 25-22) win to make their first VNL semifinal.

They will find out their next opponents on Thursday, when Poland and Iran will lock horns in another quarterfinal for the semifinal spot against USA, while Italy are awaiting the winner of the France v Japan quarterfinal.

· Watch all VNL 2022 matches live on Volleyball TV.

US outside hitter Torey Defalco contributed 17 points to his team’s win over Brazil, sandwiched between South American outsides Yoandy Leal (18 points) and Ricardo Lucarelli (16) at the top of the match scorers’ chart.

Early into the first set of their match, to every point USA scored, Brazil responded with two to break away with a 7-3 lead. With Lucarelli and Leal firing away with a lot of power, Brazil were able to stay in the lead through the rest of the set. Towards the end, some great defensive actions created break point opportunities for Leal in offence and he took advantage of them to bring set point at 24-20 and convert it to a 25-20 set win.

A successful pipe by outside Aaron Russell was followed by two consecutive kills through the middle by captain David Smith to give USA a 4-1 lead in the second set, a blow Brazil were never able to recover from through the rest of the set. They managed to get back to within one, but a blistering ace by opposite Kyle Ensing restored the three-point difference at 8-5. The North Americans even extended it to five at moments between 14-9 and 21-16, but finally they settled for three as Russell hit it off the block for a 25-22 close.

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Brazil broke away with a 7-4 lead in the third set after scoring three in a row – kills through the middle by Flavio Gualberto and Lucas Saatkamp and a pipe shot by Leal. Defalco put away an ace for 11-9 to chip in the first break point of a gradual comeback that was eventually completed at 16-16 after another ace by setter Micah Christenson. The South Americans managed to open another two-point gap in their favour, but then Aaron Russell and sub-in opposite Kyle Russell spiked successfully to restore the balance at 21-21, after which middle blocker Jeffrey Jendryk hit the overpass to put USA in front at 22-21. Finally, Defalco won a joust over the net to close the set at 25-23 USA’s way.

The North Americans stormed into the fourth set with a 7-1 run. The South Americans battled on and, capitalising on a series of US errors, got back to within one at 16-15, but that was as far as they could go. After 19-17, USA went on a six-point spree as Kyle Russell delivered the match point with a monster block and then Christenson aced the 25-17 winner.

“Every time we play Brazil, it’s a battle. They are some of the best in the world. We wanted to fight and have fun and I think we did that for sure. It’s always great to win and... we are in the semifinals!” Erik Shoji, libero of USA

In the second quarterfinal, it was the Italian blockers that made the big difference, scoring 12 stuffs against only four for the Netherlands. Opposite Yuri Romano contributed 16 points to the victory, while 21-year-old Dutch outside Bennie Junior Tuinstra produced the match high of 20 points. Each of them added four aces to their tally.

Some great defensive efforts on Italy’s side were highlighted by an amazing Alessandro Michieletto foot save, which eventually led to a 4-2 advantage. Romano followed up on his successful tip for 6-5 with two back-to-back aces for 8-5 Italy’s way. Moments later, a magical two-finger tip on two by captain-setter Simone Giannelli extended it to 10-7, before the Netherlands fought their way back to level it at 12-12 on an ace by Tuinstra, one of his eight points in the set. After 20-20, Fabian Plak hit the overpass for 21-20 and went to the serving line to help bring things to set point with an ace for 24-20. Two rallies later, an Italian mistake ended the set at 25-21 the Netherlands’ way.


Michieletto spikes through a three-men Dutch block

Italy took advantage of some unforced Dutch errors to score four points in a row and break away with a 7-3 lead in the second set. Through the rest of the set, they denied all opponent attempts at a comeback, even the four-point run that included an ace by Tuinstra in addition to some excellent spikes by the Dutch attackers and narrowed the gap down to 20-19. A serving error by captain Nimir Abdel-Aziz delivered Italian set point at 24-21. Another one by Dutch outside Maarten Van Garderen preceded the set going to Italy 25-22.

The home side were in control of the scoreboard for most of the third set, but they really broke away after 14-12, when they scored four in a row, including two aces by Romano, for 18-12. Finally, outside Daniele Lavia crowned another series of seven consecutive Italian points with an ace to close the set at an emphatic 25-13.

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An ace by middle blocker Gianluca Galassi gave Italy a two-point lead at 9-7 in the fourth set. Michieletto added another one for 12-9 and built on it with a successful back-row hit for 13-9. The Netherlands did not give up and gradually reset the balance, with Tuinstra acing for 18-18. They stayed at par for a while, until Italy broke away again with three in a row to reach match point. A rally later, Galassi converted it to a 25-22 win with a kill through the middle.

“We are very proud to be here and play in front of our fans. The atmosphere here in Bologna is amazing. We did not start the match so well and the Netherlands are a very good team with some champions inside. We knew that and we kept playing, we kept pushing and in the end we won the match. We are an amazing group and we are playing for Italy with a good, strong mentality. We have to improve our game, but I am very proud of my team!” Simone Giannelli, setter and captain of Italy