Sizing up the Final Six

Six teams are still in the hunt for the FIVB Women’s World Championship 2018 crown. The defending champion United States has all decks on hand to hold the fort against five capable challengers, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. The squads are divided into two pools of three wherein they play each other with the top four making it to the semifinal. Losers in the semis fight for bronze while winners go for the gold.

Team Netherlands – one-woman team?

The argument can be made that the Netherlands is all Lonneke Sloetjes. After nine games, she dominates team scoring with 174 points, 146 off spikes. Next to her is Anne Buijs which has only 95. But that’s not their strong suit for they were built to dominate the net. In all of the games they won, the Netherlands have dominated in blocks. It’s no wonder that they were trashed in this department by Brazil in the only game they lost so far.

Their net defense is anchored on the trio of Yvon Belien, Juliet Lohuis, and Anne Buijs who have 14, 13, and 12 blocks in the tournament. Meanwhile, the defense on the floor is patrolled by libero Kirsten Knip who only has one dig fault in 73 excellent attempts. Team captain Maret Balkestein-Grothues also has 45 digs against one fault to her name. Having a solid defense and scoring enough points will be their ticket to the semifinals. Stop Sloetjes and they will be in trouble.

Team Serbia – playing the odds

An undefeated team that has won 21 consecutive sets suddenly lost to Japan in four and to Netherlands in three. This should cause an alarm to the Serbian women’s national team. Instead, they let their reserves have more playing time in the last two games knowing that they have clinched a spot in the third round. Even in the draw, Serbia remains to be the methodical team that dominated early on.

Italy and Japan should be wary about their triple-headed attack of Brankica Mihajlovic, Milena Rasic, and Tijana Boskovic who all put a premium on efficiency. Spikers should also monitor Rasic’s position in the net if they don’t want to add to her 23 scoring blocks. Their service game is powered by Jovana Stevanovic and Stefana Veljkovic who has 18 combined service aces. Expect Serbia to be the same ferocious team that surprised us now that the stakes are higher.

Team Italy – composure from the youth

Italy is making teams like China, Russia, and USA look amateur even though their average age is 23.3 years old. But majority of these players have been trained for a competition like this. Paola Egonu has strong credentials for tournament MVP as shown by her 33 points against the United States. Miryam Sylla, Lucia Bosetti, and Cristina Chirichella can pick up the scoring slack as well to keep the defense guessing.

But while their offense is superb, Italy is one of the few teams that can beat you both ways. They had 19 total blocks against world number one China and 116 for the entire tournament so far. What’s scary is that total is fairly distributed among their leading scorers too: Anna Danesi (27), Chirichella (23), Egonu and Bosetti (17 each), and Sylla (14). That domination on two fronts gives Italy the best chance to win it all.

Team China – refining the armor

It could have been a faultless performance for Coach Lang Ping and China if not for the one set they dropped to both Bulgaria and Russia. However, they invincibility was shattered by Italy who only gave them 16 points in the third set of their Pool B match. The result could have been worse if not for the 22 turnovers the Italians committed in that game as compared to China’s 10.

Typically, the Chinese will make you pay for mistakes because they don’t do much of that. They average only a shade over nine turnovers per game with their highest at 13 against Russia. While they are limiting their errors, China is efficiently connecting with their main scorers Zhu Ting and Xiangyu Gong. Meanwhile, the great wall of defense by Xinyue Yuan and Ni Yan has resulted to 44 combined blocks. Still, it remains to be seen how revitalized they are especially when their medal hopes are pinned against the United States and the Netherlands.

Team Japan – consistently inconsistent

The highlight of the tournament so far for the host team is their four-set domination over Serbia. But prior to that game, they lost to the Netherlands in five gruelling sets and nearly suffered an upset against the Dominican Republic. The game against Brazil could have major implications if the squad of Coach Kumi Nakada lost to the Serbs. But regardless of weight, they lost the game in five sets.

That roller-coaster performance makes one question if Japan can pull off a miracle and make it to the semifinals. But they do have a shot given their determination and home crowd advantage. Opposing teams can get frustrated for the Japanese can field any attack thrown at them. They may not be exceptional in net defense but their 401 excellent digs in 539 attempts show that it would take much effort to crack them. That they achieved without any dig faults in nine games. Sarina Koga, Ai Kurogo, and Miyu Nagaoka will be their go-to players when it’s time to score.

Team USA – championship in danger

The USA’s potential to repeat as FIVB Women’s World Championship title holders was jeopardized when Thailand and Russia took them to five sets in back-to-back games. While they did recover against Bulgaria and Turkey, the Americans faltered against China in straight sets and to Italy in four. In those two losses, the Americans only had ten blocks and they were taken to school with the varying pace that their opponents utilized.

The Americans live and die with the power game given their volleyball training and philosophy. But if there’s any adjustment they can make it to the top four, it’s combining power with pace. It’s a tall order to ask players something that they are not used to. But for the likes of Jordan Larson, Kelly Murphy, and reigning World Championship MVP Kimberly Hill to be effective, they must take a page from how the Italians and the Chinese did it.