We are officially more than halfway through the group stage! The third weekend of the 2018 Nations League solidified the hierarchy of the teams playing in the tournament. France, USA, Brazil, Russia, and Poland are all but guaranteed to be 5 of the 6 teams playing in the finals in Lillie, while Serbia, Italy, Canada, and Germany are fighting it out for the last spot. Everyone else is just playing for next year. Even if you couldn’t watch many games, 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. Read this and watch a few youtube videos and you should have a decent idea of what is happening in the tournament. Here are my thoughts on the June 8th-10th weekend of the 2018 Men’s Nations League:
Winner of the weekend: Germany
When I select the winner of the weekend, the biggest criteria I use is which improved their likely outcome of the tournament from their play that weekend. While other teams may have gained more ranking points, no country improved its position within the Nations League like Germany. Beating the USA 3-0 and Canada 3-1 in front of a home crowd built on the momentum Germany gained last weekend when they gave Poland their only loss of the tournament.
They were looking to complete a perfect weekend with 9 ranking points, but a defiant Australian team unexpectedly stopped them in their tracks. Still, 7 points against two tough North American opponents makes Germany a dark horse contender for a spot in the final 6. Germany has been getting contributions from a variety of sources, including newcomer David Sossenheimer, 7-foot blocker Tobias Krick, and the usual steady play of setter Lukas Kampa. Their slow start put them in a bit of a hole, but with only one more game against a team with a winning record, Germany has a realistic shot at playing in Lillie.
Loser of the Weekend: China
Italy lost yet another game against a weak opponent, and Canada disappointed their home fans in Ottawa, but for me, the worst team this weekend was China. At the beginning of the tournament, it looked like this might be the summer where opponents must take this team seriously, with wins against Argentina and France. That, plus the phenomenal play of Jiang Chuan, might have given Chinese fans some hope that the program might turn a corner soon. Their faith was tested this weekend though, with China failing to win even one set. While they did have a tough pool, they looked as helpless as Korea against Brazilian and Russian bench players.
What solidified China’s title of worst team of the week was their horrible performance against Iran, where they were outscored by 21 points over three sets. Jiang Chuan is starting to run out of steam after receiving a huge set load in all of China’s games, and they are struggling to find offense outside of him. 19-year-old Jingyin Zhang was a lone bright spot for China this weekend, but I’m sure they were hoping they would have more to show at this point.
Best Player: Wallace De Souza
It was only a matter of time before Wallace got this distinction. He has been one of the best opposites in volleyball for almost a decade now, and if you needed a reminder go watch any of his games from this weekend. It’s not that he had 18, 21, and 22 points and helped lead Brazil to a 3-0 record, it’s how he did it. Huge bounces around a double block, delicate rolls to an empty spot on the floor, and perfect reads leading to monster blocks are just some of the highlights from this weekend.
He is one of the rare players who also can turn average situations into plays that fans will remember for the rest of the week. Give him a foot of space and he will find it. Wallace is the most important attacking option for this Brazilian team, especially with Lucarelli out, and they will need his continued excellence on a high set volume if they want to win Nations League and take back the world championship crown from Poland.
Runner-up: Dmitriy Muserskiy
Breakout Player: Douglas Souza
With Ricardo Lucarelli missing the Nations League and Lipe staying home for the week, coach Renan was forced to finally give the 23-year-old Douglas Souza a consistent starting spot. Playing the young outside turned out to be a huge benefit for Brazil, as they completed another 3-0 weekend. While he has not participated in many official matches representing Brazil, Douglas has been practicing and traveling with the team for several years and was on the roster that won the 2016 Olympic games.
You can tell that he has some experience with the other players on the national team, especially with setter William Arjona, who he played with on Sesi Sao Paulo last club season. That connection was especially evident in their game against Iran, where he led both sides in scoring with 18/27 attacking. While there is a well-established hierarchy within the Brazilian men’s team when it comes to playing time, Douglas Souza made a strong case this weekend that his youth does not preclude him from playing an important role for Brazil this summer.
Runner-up: Bartosz Kwolek
Best Game: Russia vs. Iran
I’m a sucker for the tense situations that “win by 2” scoring situations create, so it’s no surprise that this was my favourite game of the weekend. Iran had plenty of chances to take control of this match, winning 28-30 in the first set, losing 23-25 in the second set and 27-25 in the third. A victory for them would have given them a glimmer of hope of sneaking into final 6, and crushed the spirits of the Russians playing in front of their home crowd in Ulfa.
Unfortunately for Iran, the Russians have this guy named Dmitriy Muserskiy. This was probably the best game he has played in this entire tournament so far, scoring almost every time he got the ball with 23 of his 29 attacks immediately leading to a kill. His attacking, plus the fact that he developed a devastating serve in his time away from the Russian national team, leaves opposing middles feeling a combination of frustration and disbelief. Iranian wing spiker Amir Ghafour summed up their feelings nicely when he said “We also couldn’t serve better than Muserskiy. He is really tall, especially when jumping.” At 7’3” (218cm), really tall might actually be an understatement. The tight scores of the first three sets, in addition to the entire Iranian team rallying against the inevitability of Muserskiy, lead to an exciting game that I would recommend to anyone.
Runner-up: Australia vs Germany
Games to watch next week:
June 16th: France vs. Brazil @8:30 am et
June 16th: USA vs. Poland @8:30 pm et
June 17th: Germany vs Russia @9am et