Italy survives against China

You have to give it to the Chinese women’s volleyball team. They were three points away from playing for bronze in the fourth set but they kept on fighting. Their effort turned what could have been another easy set to a 31-29 classic. In the end, the Italians just had more firepower especially with Paola Egonu on their side. But China was not an easy out as they extended the fifth to a 17-15 tally. The intensity of the last two sets makes this one of the best FIVB Women’s Volleyball World Championship semifinal games in recent history.

But could the Italians have avoided going the distance if they made wiser choices by the end of the fourth? I believe so.

First set – Italy’s balanced attack

The Chinese knew that Egonu will lead the attack for Italy. But they were not able to prepare for the other players in the court. That’s why Miryam Sylla, Anna Danesi, and Lucia Bosetti were able to connect on multiple spikes as well. Their game plan was simple: Egonu has to get her touches while Sylla will be activated sparingly especially if setter Ding Xia was lined up against her. Danesi’s quick strikes will keep Ni Yan and Xinyue Yuan glued to her while Bosetti becomes the third point in their attack triangle. All this must be done on a quick pace too to throw off the Chinese from their timing.

This strategy allowed them to spread the scoring evenly as Egonu and Sylla got six and five points respectively. Danesi and Bosetti got four apiece while Cristina Chirichella added two for good measure. As for defense, Italy knew that Zhu Ting will get her numbers. Therefore, they concentrated on containing other Chinese players such as Yuan Xinyue, Zhang Changning, and Li Yingying. The ploy worked and Italy won the first set, 25-18.

The fast pace Italy used forced China to commit four errors in the set while limiting theirs to one. Service aces (3-1) and attack points (16-14) also went Italy’s way. The outcome prompted Coach Lang Ping and the Chinese to adjust in the second.

Second set – China uses the slide

Save for Hu Mingyuan’s two aces that won the set, China won their set by using their slide attack efficiently. Danesi and Chirichella had a difficult time following the ball due to the Ding Xia’s fluid execution. The confusion contributed to Italy’s seven errors during the set. Worse, China also came out aggressive in service by getting three aces as compared to Italy’s one. Their net defense that is anchored on four kill blocks was able to contain Bosetti to just one point and Danesi to zero.

With two scoring options shut down, Italy heavily relied on Egonu and Sylla. While the Italian-Nigerian delivered ten points in the set alone, it was not enough to salvage the set from China. Sylla added five more points to Italy’s cause. It is now Italy’s time to adjust after dropping a set.

Third set – Italian resurgence

Italy was able to address China’s slide attack by assigning Bosetti and libero Monica De Gennaro to man the back row defense. As a result, China was limited to just 16 points while Egonu and Sylla dominated. The Italian-Ivorian Sylla tallied five points while Egonu had eight including two service aces that broke down the Chinese morale. With attacks in the net and forceful spikes turning into aces, the Chinese did not have answers for Egonu.

Fourth set – China steals a set

Italy lacked end-game intelligence when they were just three points away from a victory. Egonu has been on fire but a little misdirection could have worked. They did not capitalize in the side out game but instead brought the ball to Egonu in succession. That allowed the Chinese defense to adjust towards her and neutralize some of her spikes. Meanwhile, Sylla has been lined up with the Chinese setter in the other direction. This is a perfect opportunity to confuse the Chinese by exploiting the match-ups.

Everybody knew that Egonu will make a load of attempts. But it was logical to give Sylla a number of cracks on it given her height and physical advantage over Xia Ding. So instead of Italy winning the set, China forced a tie and a set to remember. In a commendable battle of wills, China emerged on top, 31-29. Yes, you read the score line right. That’s 60 points combined in the set alone. Egonu’s 14 was matched by Xinyue Yuan and Zhu Ting’s seven points each.

China’s revival means that the fifth set will only be as pulsating as the fourth. Both teams did not disappoint.

Fifth set- Egonu the hero

Logic has it that you will limit fancy plays in the fifth set to avoid giving free points to your opponents. This is why the last set turned out to be a battle between Egonu and Ting Zhu. Egonu got seven points in the deciding set while Ting made six. However, Egonu had more support from her teammates as Italy reverted to the approach they had in the first set. Danesi scored four while Sylla made three. Bosetti and Chririchella had one apiece.

Meanwhile, only Li Yingying and Ni Yan scored for China outside Zhu Ting in the fifth set. Those were of little help though for they only made one point each. Therefore, the fifth set of this epic match should be part of the Italian learning curve. The seven errors they committed in the set nearly cost them the match and they can’t afford to be sloppy against an efficient Serbian team. But in the end, Egonu carried the squad on her shoulders. There’s no question that she has arrived at the summit of international volleyball.

Scoring analysis

Egonu led all scorers with a whopping 45 points. She had more points than Zhu Ting (26) and Ni Yan (17) combined. Sylla is Italy’s second leading scorer with 23 while Xinyue Yuan only had 16. Getting 68 points from your two top scorers usually translates into victory because that’s nearly 75 points or three sets won. Add to that Danesi’s 12 and you will see how potent Italy’s scoring was in this game. Bosetti and Chirichella had nine and eight points, respectively.

As the second open spiker, Bosetti matched the scoring output of both Li Yingying and Changning Zhang. China failed to activate a second open that will complete the attack triangle and that’s why Italy was able to focus their defense on the Chinese middle blockers and Ting.