For those of you new to these 2018 Men’s Nations League previews, this will give you a better idea of the teams that you’re unfamiliar with and will allow you to follow the tournament more easily. The format consists of 5 weekends of round-robin play starting May 25th (THIS FRIDAY!!!!!) taking place in different locations around the world followed by a final round in Lille, France on July 4-8th.
I’ll be doing the previews in reverse order of my own personal, unofficial power rankings. Feel free to let me know why your team is too low.
Full disclosure, I expected to rank this team a few spots lower than they ended up. Based on their performance last summer, where they placed dead last in world league and fizzled out in the European championship, you would think that they should be near the bottom of these rankings. Add Osmany Juantorena and Ivan Zaytsev to almost any team in this tournament though, and they vault into the top 6. Not many teams have the luxury to add two top-10 players to their lineup, so Italians, consider yourselves lucky.
One of the more interesting exclusions from this year’s team is Luca Vettori. The 27-year-old opposite has been a fixture on the Italian national team since he was a youngster and was being developed as the heir apparent to Giulio Sabbi. His struggles started last summer at world league, where his embarrassing 19% hitting efficiency was a big reason for Italy’s disappointment. This continued into his club season with Trentino, where he was benched frequently for players like Nick Hoag and Renee Teppan. This decline has culminated in a break from the national team for the nations league this summer. Sometimes a break for a professional athlete can be beneficial, and hopefully, Vettori can return to volleyball, or whatever he decides to pursue, better than ever.
Italy’s strength on the wings is improved greatly by the return of the Cuban national Juantorena, but there will be some competition for the second position. The likely choice will be Filippo Lanza, who is a bit of a celebrity in the Italian volleyball world. The former Italian captain is basically a libero who just happened to grow to be 6’7” and built like a linebacker. He is one of the best defenders at the position but is average in attack and is borderline unplayable at the service line. Luigi Randazzo is a much stronger offensive player but was the most targeted player by servers in the entire Italian league last season. Oleg Antonov offers a bit of a Goldilocks zone between the two players but doesn’t excel in any one category. All three will probably start at least one game in the nations league as coach Blegnini looks to find the best fit for the 2018 world championships.
Speaking of the World Championships, Italy is co-hosting the event with Bulgaria, which probably gave them some bargaining power with Zaytsev and Juantorena to convince them to join for this summer. Even with both of them, living up to the historical success that Italy has enjoyed could be tough for this current team. Italy has won medals at 5 of the last 6 Olympics and won 3 world championships in a row in the 90s. Maybe Italy has gotten worse, maybe the rest of the world has gotten better, but there doesn’t seem to be another Italian dynasty on the horizon.
Still, they have some of the most talented players in the world in Zaytsev, Colaci, Juantorena, and the setting prodigy Simone Gianelli. Their middle play will be weak compared to most of the teams on this level, and the second outside is a bit of question mark, but they can play a competitive match with every team in this tournament. A medal would be a huge momentum-builder going into the World Championship.
Likely starters (players to watch in italics):
OH: Osmany Juantorena (Civitanova)
OH: Filippo Lanza (Trentino)
OP: Ivan Zaytsev (Perugia)
MB: Simone Anzani (Perugia)
MB: Daniele Mazzone (Modena)
S: Simone Gianelli (Trentino)
L: Massimo Colaci (Perugia)