This is the pool I’m looking forward to watching the most in the first week. Other than the Dominican Republic, any team can win any match. One of those 5 teams is going to get eliminated after this group stage though, which is a shame because their fate could have been different in another Pool (looking at you C).
The Azzurri will have a lot of eyes on them, and high expectations as the hosts of the 2018 World Championships. The Italian League is as strong as it has been since the 90s, but the national team hasn’t exactly looked world-class in the two years since their fairytale run during the 2016 Olympics. That being said, their best lineup with Osmany Juantorena and Ivan Zaytsev on the court at the same time hasn’t played together much. Hopefully, the pressure of playing at home doesn’t exacerbate the tension that always seems to be bubbling behind the surface with this team.
A huge snub of the 2018 nations league finally gets to show their stuff to an international audience. Led by Modena’s star outside hitter Tine Urnaut, Slovenia has a very real chance of getting far into this tournament. Their A-squad hasn’t had any volleyball obligations since club season ended so they will have some of the best-rested players of the tournament. An important factor when you are playing a match almost every day for three weeks. This is the first chance to see them play since their beatdown of Japan in the finals of world league 2017 group 2, so the chip on their shoulder has had a long time to fester.
I hesitate to put the South Americans at third in this pool because of their lackluster performance at the nations league. But when you upgrade your setter from average-at-best to best in the world, you get the benefit of the doubt. The addition of Luciano De Cecco will give the offense of Argentina a jolt of energy that it really, really needed. They couldn’t score effectively outside of first tempo runs from middles Sebastian Sole and Augustin Loser. Argentina still has a lot of talent on paper (except at opposite), but I don’t see them taking multiple matches against the top teams.
Another team that was questionably left out of the 16-team nations league, Belgium is no slouch in European and international competition. They have solid players at every position. Especially on the outside, where Sam Deroo and Tomas Rousseaux are a passing and hitting threat on every possession. And Pieter Verhees and Simon Van de Voorde can match up favourably in the middle with a lot of opponents. While Belgium has a low likelihood of getting blown out, it will be tough for them to dominate opponents. The low-ceiling/high-floor of the team means that they will likely make it to the next round and then get bounced.
Unfortunately, I could see Japan being the odd man out in this group. They play a grueling defensive & technical style of volleyball that isn’t really replicated by any other team in the tournament. Despite this, their size limitations cause a lot of tough issues in certain matchups. If Yuki Ishikawa returns after a long injury absence, his elite hitting would give Japan a big boost in offense. And the breakout of teenage opposite Yuji Nishida was one of the most fun stories of nations league. Japan isn’t screwed, but they certainly have a tough road ahead of them to make it to the next round.
6. Dominican Republic
The Dominican Republic secured their first spot in this tournament since 1979 with a sweep in the North American championships over the team that usually qualifies for this spot, Mexico. Despite this awesome accomplishment, the World Championships is a different world of competition from NORCECA. There are some powerful attackers on this team like Wilfrido Hernandez, and the team plays hard defensively, but the skill gap between them and the rest of the pool will likely be too difficult for them to overcome. Still, even getting to this stage is a step in a right direction for Dominican Republic volleyball.