Another fun pool that has a balance of heavy hitters at the top and some sneaky good teams at the bottom. My top 4 picks should get through barring some big upsets though. Lots of injuries to top players in this pool means that teams will have to dig deep into their 14-man rosters to win games.
The news that Earvin Ngapeth will miss this portion of the tournament is concerning. But if any team can handle the absence of their top outside hitter it is France. Expect Julien Lyneel and Thibault Rossard to get extended play time in his place. A medal in this tournament is the expectation for the 2017 world league champions and 2016 nations league runners-up. They have top players at every single position and their bench should be enough to get them wins against China and Egypt. However, despite their laissez-faire attitude, that beatdown they suffered against Russia will be weighing on them until a rematch.
The top-ranked team by the FIVB’s wonky point system going into the tournament, Brazil will have a tough time remaining at the top of that list after the World Championships. The core that won the 2016 Olympic gold medal is starting to dwindle, with outside hitters Ricardo Lucarelli and Mauricio Borges both missing due to injuries. Brazil will have to dig deep to replace them, with Lipe Fontales and Douglas Souza carrying most of the burden. I still can’t count them out though as long as Bruno is still physically able to set Wallace de Souza and Lucas Saatkamp.
There is a lot of cautious optimism with this Canadian team. The optimists will tell you that this is the first time that the core of Perrin/Marr/Sanders/Vigrass/Vernon/Bann have played together since their Cinderella run to a bronze medal at the 2017 world league. Pessimists will say that the bronze medal was a fluke and Gord Perrin is still battling an injury. The truth is somewhere in the middle. We don’t know what level Perrin will be playing at due to his limited run during the Hubert Wagner Memorial. But even in a worst-case scenario this edition of the team will be better than the one Canada brought to the nations league. They should get through this first stage easily but will have a real battle on their hands in the 4-team pools.
The Netherlands are making their first appearance at the World Championships since 1998, and their return is well-deserved. I’m pumped to watch attacking and serving machine Nimir Abdel-Aziz lead the tournament in points and aces for the first two weeks. Seriously, this guy was set to set the Italian league all-time scoring record before he went down with an injury midway through the season. Outsides Thijs Ter Horst and Robbert Andringa are better passers than they are attackers, which only their fuels their game plan of “set opposite as much as possible”. The Netherlands has to be careful not to drop any sets against China or Egypt, as they could easily fall out of the top 4 teams of Pool B with a poor performance.
A second-to-last finish at the nations league does not inspire a lot of confidence in this team. There are some bright spots for this team, however. Jiang Chuan is still underrated and will probably manage to score 5 points a set on 55% hitting despite being the only attacker opponents pay attention to. The return of Chen Long-Hai will give China an actual option in the middle, something they missed dearly in the nations league. That’s where the firepower of China ends though. They really struggle to serve teams out of system, which puts a lot of pressure on an already overworked block. And the offense can go through icy cold stretches when Jiang Chuan struggles. China won’t be a pushover, but I don’t expect them to advance.
While I’m sure the battles between Al Ahly and Zamalek sports clubs are the stuff of legends, it is not a good sign if none of your players play outside your own domestic league (except for the big 4 of course). The Egyptian team is in for a monumental increase in competition facing the likes of France, Serbia, and Canada. Captain Ahmed Abdelday will do his best to compete with Nimir Abdel-Aziz and Jiang Chuan for the scoring title, but he can’t carry the offense by himself. Egypt probably isn’t even the best African team, so their chances of going far in this pool are slim.