Lausanne, Switzerland, July 5, 2016 - The FIVB Volleyball World League 2016 Preliminary Rounds drew to a conclusion over the weekend, and as Slovenia earned their ticket to Group 2 of the 2017 edition of the tournament with victory in the Group 3 Finals, here are five things to take from week three of action.
1. Serbia’s invincibility cloak falls
Serbia were undefeated coming into the final week of the Preliminary Round, and were looking deadly in attack.
However, a loss to Iran in their opening match in Tehran sent shockwaves through the team, and they were their own worst enemy having committed seven more errors than the hosts. Cut to 24 hours later and the side struggled against Argentina, losing 3-0 and slipping down the table for the first time this year. An edgy 3-2 win over Italy in their final match would have boosted confidence again, but will those two losses have a psychological impact at the Finals in Poland?
2. Brazil peaking perfectly
Whilst Serbia saw their form dip ahead of the Finals, Brazil continued their upward trajectory with three more wins in Nancy.
The side have just one loss to their name this year – to Serbia in Belgrade – but will have plenty of momentum when they arrive in Poland next week for the Finals. They ground down the Poles in their first match of the weekend, keeping them at arms-length in a tense opening set before running away with the second and third. Belgium put up a thrilling challenge but were ultimately defeated before the Olympic Games hosts put the icing on the cake with a win over defending champions France in their own back yard.
Three teams have gone on to win Olympic gold in the same year as winning the World League (USA in 2008, Brazil in 2004 and the Netherlands in 1996) and not many people would bet against Brazil being in with a chance of adding their names to that list in 2016.
3. Ngapeth: “Did you miss me?”
Despite featuring during the second week of the Preliminary Round, it was only on the third weekend that Earvin Ngapeth began to unload the same offensive weaponry from his arsenal of tricks that saw him crowned the tournament’s MVP in 2015.
The Modena star was top scorer in all three matches (jointly with Mauricio Souza of Brazil and Sam Deroo of Belgium in their matches with France), notching 57 points including four aces and seven blocks, and will no doubt be the focus of video analysis for several teams ahead of the final.
The French have not looked as solid as they did in 2015, losses to Brazil and Argentina illustrating that there are chinks in their armour. However, there is no doubt that with a European Championship, a World League title and qualification to the Rio 2016 Olympic Games already achieved over the last 12 months, coach Laurent Tillie has ambitions to add to the side’s honours list.
4. Canada almost hit perfection
When it comes to confidence, Glenn Hoag’s Canada must have been overflowing when they came into their match with hosts Finland on the final day of the Group 2 Preliminary Round. A seven-match winning streak saw them already guaranteed a place in the final and they had only dropped four sets throughout the tournament.
However, in a sensational five-setter the Canadians were undone by the hosts to finish on a 7-1 win-loss record. The bubble won’t burst for them yet, and they will fancy their chances at the Group 2 crown and promotion to Group 1. But Finland has shown that Gavin Schmitt, Frederic Winters et al do have weaknesses. The question remains, will they be fixed ahead of the Finals and Rio 2016?
5. Slovenia prove that European Championship silver was no flash in the pan
Slovenia shocked the volleyball world during last year's European Championship, marching to the finals of the tournament by beating heavyweights the Netherlands, world champions Poland and Italy on the way.
It was the country's best ever finish at the tournament, and they followed it up in fine fashion in Germany over the weekend, beating the hosts - who were also bronze medallists at the last FIVB Volleyball Men's World Championship in 2014 - in the final to claim a well-earned ticket to Group 2.
The world No.25 have steadily built up their podium finishes, having also won gold at the 2015 European League which followed bronze medals at the same tournament in 2011 and 2014. Group 2 teams should write them off at their peril in 2017.