Z People had problems with The Lions: Belogorie offered Zenit-Kazan serious arguments

Z People had problems with The Lions: Belogorie offered Zenit-Kazan serious arguments Photo: Roman Kruchinin (zenit-kazan.com)

The match of two eight-time champions of Russia – Zenit and Belogorie – is the headliner of the Russian volleyball stage. The game history of Z People and The Lions (Belogorie) started to be written down in the Champions League in the 2013/14 season, which the clubs won 7 times in total. Then Shipulin's players won the Kazan players in the semi-final and got the title one day later. Now Alekno has a great chance to take a revenge and reach Roma where Zenit will have to confirm the title of the club champion of the Old World. Famous TV commentator and permanent author of Realnoe Vremya Aleksandr Norden tell how the strongest European club made its first step (3-1) towards Roma.

Roma for gladiators?

Belogorie has had nothing serious to oppose Zenit since the memorable April final series of the 2015 Russian Championship. The bronze medallist of the last competition lost in 4 sets in October on the court of Saint Petersburg Volleyball Centre and could show nothing just recently at its native Cosmos Arena – 0-3. Nowadays Zenit doesn't have rivals in Russia, Europe. And in this series where a trip to Roma was at stake it could lose only to itself. But Alekno is unlikely to accept such tricks. If he could not prepare his players as it should be, they would not achieve the best result at the League's group stage (where Belogorie, by the way, achieved it due to hard work) and Playoffs 12. It should not be forgotten that everything is possible in the cup series, especially if it is international, and The Lions did not hide their Roman ambitions before the match.

An eclectic show with a mixture of spotlights, music, people in LED costumes, juggling and even football freestyle – preceded the match. The speaker's evil voice presented the rivals, the presenter roused fans to action and fired up the stands that gradually filled – and volleyball gladiators appeared on the court. To be more precise, on the contrary to customs of Ancient Roma, The Lions appeared on the court first, only then the gladiators came about when the spectators started to excitedly shout.

Curiously, numerous and noisy Belgorod fans were not seen in the stands. There were even two Cuban flags (León's relatives came) but no flag of Belogorie fans. Or were they going to appear during the game? But a banner with an eloquent hint ''Roma for Gladiators'' was the gimmick of the performance of the host fan sector.

Curiously, numerous and noisy Belgorod fans were not seen in the stands

The line-ups were the best. The guest team consisted of Tetyukhin, Musersky, Khtey, Zhigalov and Marlon, Martynyuk was the libero. The host team had Mikhailov, León, Anderson, Volvich, Butko and libero Verbov. The first minutes were nervous, the initiative with the ball rushed hither and thither, Zhigalov had two inaccurate shots (in the net and out), Khtey's uncalculated pass on the front line defined Zenit's small advantage 6-4. Nothing left from it soon – the teams started to ''lie'', and The Lions looked better. León's diagonal shot through Obmochaev's hands made the rivals take first timeout with a minimum superiority.

''León! León!'' the stands shouted, but Belgorod players coped with Wilfredo's serve. The first challenge was when the score showed 10-8. Belogorie asked for a video challenge saying the rival had touched the ball and scored a point.

Volleyball became yummy. The longest play was with 12-9. Tetyukhin and Butko received ball in a low flight, the block from both sides diminished the unpleasant feeling. But Zenit gave the final answer. The host team led 14-9, and Kosarev took timeout and strengthened the attack with Danilov of 208 cm of height. It was pointless, Anderson and Butko attacked without opposition, and the score became 16-10, it was serious!

Alekno's players could do everything: triple block, Anderson's powerful shots, León's false discounts. Kosarev changed the squad, but the fight in the first set almost ended. 21-10 – it was impossible to stop the White and Blue train. The end of the set turned into a masterclass of the terrifying attacks of the host team. Belgorod's game split into ''atoms'' with no link (or combination) of elements, even Tetyukhin's heroism adorned his team's sad statistics only a bit. 25-14 – indeed, Roma doesn't seem to be for The Lions.

Alekno's players could do everything: triple block, Anderson's powerful shots, León's false discounts

León and Mikhailov for The Lions

León's shot reached the very corner of the hall and he opened the second set. The Cuban blocked, Aschev coped with Tetyukhin, but León served out. Musersky's very powerful serve, Verbov could not deal with it, and Alekno took timeout. The score was just 3-5, but Zenit could not lose the victorious spirit and let The Lions leave the ''cage''. Volvich coped with the defence of the Belgorod players at the third attempt, and the Maksim machine gun made a remake of the first set – 8-7 in favour of Zenit again by the first technical timeout.

This time it would not be easy for Alekno's guys. The game was very close – 10-10, 11-11, they could not increase the margin. Finally, an advance was seen after Gutsalyuk's serves (though there were not terrifying for the guests): 16-12 by the second technical timeout, not 16-10 from the first set, but still, not bad.

Anyway, that set was not comparable with the first one. Belogorie fought for every ball, but Mikhailov and León's cannons hit the target even if not always. At times the block saved – it was traditionally good. The host team gradually took the lead without putting effort, and when Mikhailov almost crushed the parquet with his shot – 22-14 – you understood that they would not win… By the end of the second set, the guest team became closer to the hosts, but 25-17 again, and it seemed the outcome of the match did not rise questions.

The Lions were not from Belgorod

Zenit lost only one set in eight group stage and Playoffs 12 matches. They were not going to change it in that match as well. Belogorie had new faces on the court – Teremenko, Yereschenko, Poroshin. But the guests managed to diminish the attack of the rival with timeouts, substitutions and video challenges. They even didn't diminish but slowed it down. But ''eternal'' Tetyukhin whooped for joy after his shootout, he was great, as usual, but one man, no man. 8-5 by the first technical timeout in the third set – it was even easier than in the previous sets.

Musersky is different now, not that of London. His every serve was out, every shot was blocked. Khtey was slow, so he was sent to sit on the bench. Only omnipresent Tetyutkhin did not allow the collective split into atoms again. The fan sector had its own life and sang Katyusha, but was not it early to sing? Musersky finally touched the court, then the guests took the lead – 13-12. And even Belgorod's block started to work at the third attempt. Plus, one of Kosarev's substitutions was successful – Yan Yereschenko. The second technical timeout started for the teams with a minimum advantage of the hosts – were we going to see an intense end in this game without problems for Zenit even in one set?

The second technical timeout started for the teams with a minimum advantage of the hosts

It looked so. Ukrainian cannon Teremenko levelled the score with a powerful shot, but León reasonably answered. Yereschenko was very good – two aces, and the score was 20-20. My colleagues in the seats for the media thought Zenit would purchase Yan in the next season: ''He won't play, just to weaken the rival''. Volvich enabled the host team to go ahead, but Belgorod players not only did not give up but held the lead – 23-22. Obmochaev who suddenly appeared and launched the ball towards the stands with a joyful cry – he deserved a victory over Kazan more than others. Alekno asked for a video challenge with 22-24 but lost. Musersky shot the ball in the net when the spectators were whistling loudly. Then a dramatic outcome of the set came. The Kazan players saved the ball with heroic efforts, and León attacked. Unfortunately, out. Despite the next video challenge asked by Alekno, 23-25. And it turned out The Lions were not from Belgorod. They also wanted to go to Roma.

Fourth set

The strategy in the two-match series is simply – score a point away and breath calmly at home. Inspired by the outcome of the third set, the Belgorod players easily started the fourth one, while ours were tense and constrained. 0-4 and Alekno took timeout – he needed to help the team. Butko saved the flying ball like a stone having touched the net, León started his comeback. Not to be continued – 3-6 after the host block touched. It was time for heavy artillery. Mikhailov used all possible weapons, Tetyukhin shot beyond the line, and the block sent the ball out thanks to Anderson's shot. Anyway, the guests were the leaders by the first technical timeout – 8-6.

Everything changed in the match except that it was a Champions League match. A real men's battle was taking place. Belogorie maintained a two-point margin, and only León and Mikhailov's armor-piercing shells allowed to hope that everything could change. It was anxious that The Lions found an antidote to the Cuban's some shots. If this weapon started to shoot alone, and the machine gun was tired, what would Alekno use from his arsenal? He did not use substitutions at all unlike his colleague Kosarev.

No, the Zenit coach's conservatism was apparent. Sivozhelez appeared for the first time, it gave Anderson an impulse. But The Lions had two points more by the second technical timeout. Now or never. A triple block of Kazan equalised the score for the first time in the set, and Mikhailov saw a ''naked'' centre in the rival's area – 17-16! Then Kosarev had to stop the hosts with timeout, but the process had already begun. Maksim machine gun found a new lease of life, and the score already was 19-16. We could live!

It was not the end, The Lions won three match points, but Zenit called it quits

Yereschenko made his first mistake in the match, he served into the net. But his mates did not give up and approached the rival – 20-19. Luckily, it was not Musersky's day: the nth out in serve, slyness by Butko and status quo of +3 points was back – 22-19. León performed a successful shot after Podlesnykh's serve, while Tetyukhin, this iron, infallible Tetyukhin shot into the net and approached the match point. Three match points. It was not the end, The Lions won three match points, but Zenit called it quits. We will know whether everything is clear on 13 April in Belgorod. The fight for Roma will be tough. Both the gladiators and the victims want to feel the atmosphere of the Coliseum. All roads lead to the Eternal City, but only one team will go till the end. The gladiators or The Lions…

  • Vladimir Alekno

    Vladimir Alekno head coach at Zenit-Kazan

    We have had the first critical state of real volleyball in the last months. We won two sets. It is good we withstood because we need to get into shape before the return match to solve the problem.

    What changed in the rival's game after the second set?

    Nothing. Yereschenko appeared in the third set to send the ball to León. This team (Belgorod) is not embarrassed by 0-2, spectators, Zenit's fame, they play and that's it. I will draw conclusions.

  • Aleksandr Kosarev

    Aleksandr Kosarev head coach at Belogorie

    Why were the sets so different?

    Because the rival is strong. First of all, it is necessary to handle your own emotions, play according to the instructions and receive easy balls. We did not work enough here a bit.

    Today you were better than the host team at serves.

    I have not seen the statistics yet. But we worked on this element more. All variants of the scenario were rehearsed at training.

    Three people played as opposite hitter. Whom did you like most?

    I will open the statistics and look who scored more points, it is whom I liked.

By Aleksandr Norden. Photo: Roman Kurchinin (zenit-kazan.com)