The first weekend of Nations League 2018 didn’t contain a lot of close matches (only 3 of the 24 matches went to 5 sets), but there was some exciting volleyball being played. Even if you couldn’t watch many games (rip FIVB youtube streams), this recap should give you a decent idea of the main storylines of the weekend and allow you to follow the tournament without too much time commitment. I also recommend the True Volleyball YouTube channel, as they have 30-minute versions of the games that are perfect if you can’t watch the whole thing, as well as my own channel where I’ll post individual player performances. Here are my thoughts on the May 25th-27th weekend of the 2018 Men’s Nations League:
Winner of the weekend: Poland
There were a lot of question marks for the Polish national team coming into this season. The third coach in 3 years. A roster of gigantic egos across different age groups. Huge expectations from a ravenous Polish fanbase. Things were looking good in Krakow this weekend though as Poland went 3-0 and confidently dispatched two potential playoff rivals in Russia and Canada. Every player that suited up for Poland in front of their home crowd got on the court except for Kacper Piechocki. It didn’t matter what combination of guys was playing, Poland looked dominant, only dropping one set all weekend. 20-year-old middle Jakub Kochanowski was as impressive as expected, especially against Canada where he scored 8 kills, 3 blocks, and 4 aces. It was entertaining to listen to the commentators realize how good Kochanowski was over the course of the weekend. Poland will have a chance to prove they are a true contender against France on Friday.
Loser of the Weekend: Serbia
My personal pick to win the Nations League did not look like a top-tier team this weekend. While their pool was tough, failing to take a set off either Brazil or Italy has me worried about their chances the rest of the tournament. Coach Nikola Grbic brushed off the losses, stating that Brazil and Italy were playing unbeatable volleyball, but Serbia cannot continue this play if they want to be considered an elite team. Uros Kovacevic must be better. He had one of the all-time bad performances I’ve seen against Brazil, only scoring on 2 of his 17 hitting attempts. Serbia also struggled with finding consistency at the setter position. Nikola Jovovic was not connecting with the usually dominant Marko Podrascanin and Srecko Lisinac, and backup Ivan Kostic wasn’t much better. Serbia has the chance to sweep their pool against Bulgaria, Russia, and Australia next weekend, which would go a long way to getting back on track.
Best Player: Ivan Zaytsev
Now we see why Zaytsev insisted on returning to opposite. The Tsar had a completely dominant weekend, scoring 69 points in 12 sets and leading Italy to a 3-0 record. His serve looked like it had some extra oomph behind it, reaching up to 134 km/h in the game against Brazil on Sunday. Most importantly, he seemed to be at ease on the court, laughing and joking with Italian teammates he hasn’t played with in two years. It seems like a lot of the ego that he brought onto the team in previous tournaments has disappeared. It was easy to forget how good Italy was with Juantorena and Zaytsev after last year’s fiasco, but for this weekend they looked every bit as good as the team that won the 2016 Olympic silver medal.
Runner-up: Jenia Grebbenikov
Breakout Player: Jakub Kochanowski
As I mentioned earlier, this weekend was a great introduction of Kochanowski to the international fans who haven’t seen him play before. He showed off his signature skills to an 11,000 strong crowd in Krakow. Powerful spin serves to the corners, spikes directly at the T, and an uncanny ability to read sets made him a fan favourite. He was the second best middle in the plusliga this season after Serbian Srecko Lisinac and didn’t miss a beat in his first games with the senior men’s team. He will be the face of Polish volleyball for the next decade.
Runner-up: Yuji Nishida
Best Game: Italy vs. Brazil
It’s not often that you get to see a rematch of the Olympic finals in the first weekend of a second-tier international tournament, but thanks to Italy and Brazil’s insistence on bringing their top players, we got just that. This game was a 5-setter where Brazil and Italy took turns dominating individual sets. The fourth was the closest, with Brazil saving set point and going on to win 26-24. Ivan Zaytsev was a closer for Italy, scoring 32 points on 26/47 kills, 4 blocks, and 2 aces. Brazil had a more balanced offensive approach but none of their players were able to match Zaytsev’s brilliance. Coaches may say that this tournament is nothing more than a warm-up for the world championships, but there was plenty of competitive fire in this match.
Runner-up: Japan vs. Iran
Games to watch next week:
June 1st – Poland vs France @10am et
June 2nd – Russia vs Serbia @ 10am et
June 3rd – Brazil vs USA @ 11:40am et