Yesterday was the last round of classification matches in the inaugural AVC U23 tournament, as well as some jockeying for position as the tournament heads into its knockout phase.
We saw definite signs of fatigue from some teams, while others were able to reap the benefits of either a lucky draw in the initial group phase, or just being waist-deep in talent. If there’s an important takeaway from this, is that international tournaments are sprints and not marathons. When one is playing on foreign soil, they’re definitely going to need all the talent they have in order to make it through a highly-competitive tournament. To illustrate, let’s run through yesterday’s volleyball action.
MATCH 1 (RANK 9-12 CLASSIFICATION MATCH): BIGGER UZBEKISTAN SQUEEZES PAST SMALLER MACAU 19-25, 25-16, 25-23, 23-23-25, 15-11.
In this match, the Uzbekistanis had what the Macanese sorely lacked. Uzbekistan had an array of tall ladies that can definitely put a dent on the floor with their powerful spikes. However, they have been playing the entire tournament without a Libero and it seemed that none of their players have any idea what to do when they rotate to the back row. They’re often caught flat-footed and unable to reach for a dig or reception that flies out of their lengthy arms. Their service reception pattern doesn’t lend itself to a smooth defense-offense transition, which often leads to a lot of clunky possessions.
Macau, on the other hand, has a scrappy bunch of vertically-challenged players. What they lack in height and skill, they make up for it with sheer hustle and energy. In spite of this, they only have a limited range of weapons to fire in offense, and it doesn’t help that their service reception has been inconsistent throughout the tournament.
It was incredibly entertaining to see Uzbekistan’s taller players get stuffed at the net by the shorter Macau blockers. Macau was able to scrape by the lumbering Uzbekistan defense with well-placed shots. But in the end, Uzbekistan’s height took its toll and forced Macau into a pile unforced errors. Macau didn’t do itself any favors as well for they gave up way too many aces which can be directly attributed to their lack of focus to be consistent with their receptions.
Macau team captain Leong On Leng put together one of the tournament’s best stat lines with 25 points off 21 attacks, 2 blocks, 2 aces, 13 excellent digs and 7 excellent receptions. Although her effort wasn’t enough to lift her team over Uzbekistan, who managed to conjure double-digit performances from four of its players.
The win earned Uzbekistan the right to face Kazakhstan in the battle for ninth place this Friday while Macau will fight to stay off the bottom part of the rankings when it shall face another winless team in Maldives tomorrow.
MATCH 2: CHINA WAYLAYS DAZED THAILAND 25-13, 25-10, 25-12.
This match was expected to be more competitive than what actually transpired that day. Both teams have been knocking each other out of international tournaments for the better part of the last decade, with Thailand recently getting the best of China in the Women’s Seniors department. Three players on Thailand’s current roster had substantial runs with their Seniors team while China’s roster consists mainly of young players with no international experience prior to the tournament.
Thailand has been utilizing their top players way too much considering they’ve only had one tough match before they faced China. In their match last Monday, India pounced on them and it took a mighty effort from the Thais to break away in each of those three sets.
Meanwhile, China had the opportunity to save its players since they were bracketed in the first classification phase with two severely smaller and less skilled teams in India and Maldives. The Chinese had a chance to rest and looked fresher as they powered through a determined Korea side last Monday and went on to outshine Thailand last Tuesday.
The Thais just weren’t on their game when their hitters had several chances to go for big hits, but opted to pull back and go for placement shots. Likewise, their normally treacherous net and back row defense was often caught off-guard and mistimed.
The match results definitely surprised the Chinese side who revealed in the post-match presser that they expected more of a fight than what they got considering how deep Thailand’s talent pool is.
Most likely, Thailand looked at their situation within their group. Given that they were already assured of a top two spot in Group F regardless if they won or lost, the Thais would have to face either Iran or the Philippines this coming Thursday. Iran and the Philippines were surely going to end up as the bottom two teams in Group E. Against either team, Thailand has a definite advantage and might take the match as an opportunity to rest their key players and at the same time, to avoid being scouted comprehensively by the Chinese who Thailand may have to go through in the latter parts of the tournament.
No matter the reason, the match was definitely a no-bearing game for Thailand so it was a sensible move not to go all-out immediately. The odds are surely on Thailand moving past Iran and China will most likely defeat the Philippines tomorrow. So, the hyper-competitive China-Thailand match everyone was expecting may have to wait until Saturday when the stakes are higher.
MATCH 3: JAPAN ZOOMS PAST IRAN 25-13, 25-7, 25-15
Japan is a perfect example of the aforementioned depth that the elite teams in this tournament have. They played a totally different starting six than they fielded against the Philippines and were still able to execute their helter-skelter pace perfectly. Iran, however, didn’t have the luxury of a deep bench, causing fatigue to seep into their star players who tried their best to keep up against Japan.
Japan pulled impressive performances from its outside hitters in Inoue Arisa and Higane Minami. The combo went for 18 and 17 points respectively. Interestingly, both hitters barely played in their first two matches and were even fielded late during their match against the Philippines. Also, the Japanese have been able to rest their best players, Muranaga Nao, Sakamoto Nanaka, Imamura Yuka, and Mabashi Kaori, who should be fresh and ready to go for the last stretch of the tournament.
On the other hand, Iran’s best players are probably gasping for breath heading into the mid-tournament break. Their team captain, Mahsa Saberi, was an all-around beast in the initial stages of the tournament but she looked incredibly sluggish against Japan. The entire team, as a matter of fact, moved like they were playing on quick sand and should greatly benefit from their rest day.
Japan will face India tomorrow while Iran has Thailand up on its sleeve.
KOREA OUSTS PESKY INDIA 25-18, 25-17, 25-11.
The Koreans have been a pleasure to watch all tournament long as they’ve played like a race car stuck on fifth gear. The Koreans came out to play no matter who they face and out of their fellow best Asian teams, they might have been the unluckiest in their draw of opponents, having two heartbreaking five-set losses against Thailand and China.
India pulled out all the breaks in attacking and blocking in the first set, but the Koreans quickly found a way around India’s wall as they played an incredibly efficient brand of volleyball. Korea’s open hitter Lee Soyoung continued her impeccable tournament run, topping all scorers with 19 points off 14 attacks, 4 aces and 1 block. She also contributed defensively with 4 digs and 7 excellent receptions which padded her case for tournament MVP if there were such an award.
Even after a splendid match against India, they still haven’t earned a break as they’ll have to takedown a scrappy Chinese Taipei team tomorrow to move on to the Top 4. But they definitely have the firepower to move past the Republic of China and it just remains to be seen when will fatigue hit this team. India, on the other hand, has the tough challenge of being the first to take down the unbeaten Japanese spikers.
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