After 5 weekends of grueling group stage play, 16 teams have been whittled down to 6 for the 2018 Volleyball Nations League Finals.
First, the important stuff:
Pool A: Russia, Poland, USA
Pool B: France, Brazil, Serbia
Russia vs Poland @12 noon et, 9am pt
France vs Brazil @2:45pm et, 11:45am pt
USA vs Poland @12 noon et, 9am pt
Serbia vs Brazil @2:45pm et, 11:45am pt
Russia vs USA @ noon et, 9am pt
France vs Serbia @2:45pm et, 11:45am pt
After this phase of the finals, the top two teams from each group will continue on to a single game elimination.
1st place group A vs 2nd place group B @8am et, 5am pt
1st place group B vs 2nd place group A @10:30am et, 7:30am pt
3rd place match @11am et, 8am pt
1st place match @2:45pm et, 11:45am pt
Even though France was guaranteed a spot in the final 6 by their host status, they still managed to come out of the group stage with the best record. Coach Laurent Tillie gave his starter plenty of rest and they barely missed a beat thanks to the incredible depth on the wings. Playing at home on fresh legs should give France the boost they need to win back-to-back World/Nations League titles.
Another team that set itself up well for the final 6. Russia played with a bunch of different player combinations, and superstar opposite Maxim Mikhaylov hasn’t even played in the tournament. The return of Dmitry Muserskiy and the steady play of Egor Kliuka were enough to carry them to the second-best record without expending too much energy. The Russian team we will see at the finals should be much more dangerous than any roster of the group stage, with Mikhaylov, Muserskiy, and Dmitry Volkov playing together for the first time in a while.
This current crop of USA players keeps getting better and more cohesive every tournament they play together. Micah Christenson, Matt Anderson, Max Holt, David Smith, Erik Shoji, and Aaron Russell were all some of the best performers of the tournament. We even saw some promising play from Ben Patch and Taylor Sander, who missed the tournament due to the birth of his child, is back with the team for Final 6. This team has enough talent to win the nations league but we have seen them struggle in later stages of tournaments in the past.
Despite a few close calls, Serbia managed to finish with one of the best records. The potential of this team is astounding, with size and athletism at every position (except libero). Outsides Uros Kovacevic and Marko Ivovic were disappointing during the group phase, especially in reception. Their poor passing limited the amount that Serbia could utilize its dominant middles. If this team can avoid melting down for a few days, they will be a gold medal threat.
The usually dominant Brazil was almost in danger of losing their spot in the final 6. The core of Bruno, Lucas Saatkemp, Mauricio Borges, and Wallace is starting to show signs of slowing down. Especially in blocking, the Brazilians look more beatable than ever before. Opponents shouldn’t count them out yet, however, as their execution is still stellar and they have had 10 days of rest to prepare for the finals. Outside Lipe and middle Mauricio Souza are out for the finals, so lots of pressure will be on the young Douglas Souza.
After starting with an incredible 8-1 record, Poland went 2-4 in their last 6 games and sputtered into the final round. Part of the reason for this was an eye infection to outside hitter Michal Kubiak, who they missed as a reliable option on the outside. Mateusz Mika will also miss the final 6 with appendix inflammation. Coach Vital Heynen has experimented with many different lineups throughout the tournament and has expressed that medalling is not important to them. We’ll see who he selects as the starters when they play their first match against Russia on Wednesday.
All of these rosters are stacked with talent, and I’m excited about the last high-level volleyball we get to watch until the world championship in September. Who is your pick to win?