Spirik and rapper Klima’s Cirque du Volley: how Zenit-Kazan will look without León

If Alenko brings another five trophies, he will certainly do it in a new style

Spirik and rapper Klima’s Cirque du Volley: how Zenit-Kazan will look without León Photo: Roman Kruchinin / zenit-kazan.com

Zenit-Kazan volleyball players got back from their holiday last week. The club has taught to win at the end of a season and has had relatively calm behaviour in the transfer market in the last years. In the main, only reserve players have been purchased. Vladimir Alekno characterises such players at press conferences like ''he helped a lot in training process, no complaints''. But this offseason is special for volleyball in Kazan. Wilfredo León leaves the Tatarstan capital after four years. Realnoe Vremya tells how the team's game will change without the phenomenal Cuban.

Ngapeth isn't new León

We should lay stress from the beginning. The new player of the team, 27-year-old French Earvin Ngapeth is, undoubtedly, a world volleyball superstar. And Wilfredo's feats will be expected from him in Kazan. However, we won't certainly see new León. Even if Zenit ends the season with five trophies, it will do it in another style.

To begin with, it's completely different players on the court. The Cuban is a physically gifted player with a phenomenal jump and a born athlete to handle high balls. The Frenchman is a supporter of a fast game oriented to a good vision of the court and diversity of shots. Ngapeth won't serve a series of balls like a cannon. In the national team and at Modena, Earvin taught his rivals to expect a complicated close tactical serve that León has almost never coped with. Though Ngapeth has run a risk and served heavily, become the best in his team in this component in recent time, he's far from León's laurels. Strength, power was the Cuban's forte, and if he hit the court, the rival usually could just shrug his shoulders: ''This is León, there is nothing to do.'' But Earvin looks more confident than the Cuban in such important components as reception and defence.

We won't certainly see new León. Photo: Maksim Platonov

The behaviour outside the pitch is another important difference between León and Ngapeth. Wilfredo is a correct hard-working family man who uses his talent to the max. Earvin is completely different. In his life, he's run away from the police, provoked accidents and drunk fights, hit a controller of Paris – Bordeaux train with pleasure (but he was exculpated later), was expelled from the national team for disciplinary reasons (the French media wrote he put up a fight with the head coach due to a small amount of playing time). And he has just recently been imposed a one-year suspended sentence and has had his driving licence revoked for the same term.

It's enough to mention his appearance in the Championship of Russia in the 2013/2014 season at Kuzbass from Kemerovo. Ngapeth played six quite good matches in the Superleague and then just packed his belongings, didn't notify anybody and left the team his father Éric N'Gapeth trained. The father was dismissed several matches later, of course, because the French family was hired in Kemerovo as a couple. But it turns out the son framed his father. In addition, he terminated quite an expensive contract at about €500,000 a year. The official reason for such a step wasn't named, this is Ngapeth. What's more, as it's known, Earvin has been singing rap since 12 years under the pseudonym of Klima (literally translated as ''air conditioning''). His mates called him so for unpredictability and extreme changeability of mood. So we should wait for characteristic emotions and different unusual game decisions from Earvin, especially in the beginning. His backward shot became a classical volleyball meme a long time ago (on video).

Butko factor

The figure of the setter will probably be much more important than Ngapeth at Zenit without León. Aleksandr Butko arrived in Kazan in winter 2016. And, as it turned out later, he became the puzzle the Zenit players lacked to play such an amazing season as the latest one. Butko excellently played all decisive matches and effectively used such a cosmic weapon as Anderson – León – Mikhailov with his assists. The three players are tailored for physically powerful volleyball designed for high assists and powerful shots. Head coach of the national team of the USA John Speraw has recently slightly criticised the Russian squad's powerful style. But the Russian squad won the League of Nations in the end, while Zenit-Kazan played the super season in a similar manner. But if the squad won't need to change in the autumn championship, the Kazan club will be playing differently now.

Butko will need to get used to Ngapeth's game manner who loves low fast assists, while Ngapeth will need to get accustomed to Butko's game who has formed by his 32 years as a setter who greatly performs his high assists. Taking into consideration that Ngapeth's abilities objectively are lower than that of León (we won't certainly see León's jumps), precisely Butko will have to adapt to his forte in fast combination game. And if we consider that both players are back from their national squads after the World Championship only in October, there won't be much time to play together. This is why the next season will become in Aleksandr's career one of the most interesting and busiest ones. And it will be very curious to observe the formation of the team without León, with an updated game style but with the old setter.

Spiridonov and Anderson as progress drivers

Matthew Anderson and Aleksey Spiridonov play in one position but will perform different roles in the team. The American is able to play quite frankly weak matches in regular seasons. But Matt taught a long time ago he's very useful and one can rely on him at important meetings. He works hard as the second foreigner, but if something goes wrong with Ngapeth, Anderson is able to become a real leader at any moment. Though one can argue here – he's been in the team since 2012, and he rightly won his seat in the first team a long time ago. And new recruit Ngapeth will need thank for all advances.

He works hard as the second foreigner, but if something goes wrong with Ngapeth, Anderson is able to become a real leader at any moment

Yes, it's very likely we will see the couple of setters Ngapeth-Anderson at Zenit in the optimal condition in the beginning. But the Kazan coaching staff is also lucky to have Aleksey Spiridonov in hand. It should be reminded he left Kazan in 2016 to Krasnoyarsk saying ''I want to play, not to warm the bench''. Vladimir Alekno only welcomed such an aspiration of the player. And Spirik demonstrated a high level and was rightly in the championship's top 5 in his position in the following season. But Aleksey's next season was uneven, as well as the whole team, in general, that even didn't reach the play-off. And now he's back in Kazan, he's very motivated and quite able to show off and win a seat in the starting line-up. It's good he will have chances for it – he will begin the season at the club in September, earlier that Ngapeth and Anderson who will be in the World Championship in their national teams.

And maybe there will be matches in autumn already when we see both Spirik and rapper Klima on the court at the same time. And it's another intrigue of the season how such emotional guys as Spiridonov and Ngapeth will get along with. But this potentially looks no worse than performances of legendary Cirque du Soleil. There will be a real volleyball circus in the good sense of the word.

Verbov and Mikhailov will back up

Not to overwhelm by emotions, there will be needed support of experienced and tried and tested people. Maksim Mikhailov is the best opposite hitter in the world without doubt. Verbov is still one of the best liberos in world volleyball. Who else if not they will help the new players to adapt and perform high goals with any playing style.

Verbov reliably cements in reception and backs up in the defence, while Mikhailov has grown into such a versatile player that is able to be both a cannon player who interruptedly scores points in the attack and supports in both the defence and block. Perhaps, we'd like to see more from Maksim in reception (he's fourth in the Superleague in this component).

Mikhailov has grown into such a versatile player that is able to be both a cannon player who interruptedly scores points in the attack and support in both defence and block. Photo: Maksim Platonov

Alekno's motivation

''The most complicated thing in the new season is motivation.'' Vladimir Alekno pronounced this phrase during the final press conference in May and gave an example of Verbov and Mikhailov. Alekno immediately explained ''becoming a champion'' stopped being motivation for Kazan players a long time ago. It goes without saying. But ''being always strong'' has been the motivation of several last seasons. And if the experienced players' motivation remains at last year's level, there can't be any problems. Though, as Mr Alekno noted, there had been big problems with motivation in some matches in the last years.

After last year's mega triumph, it's also interesting how Alekno himself will solve the problem with motivation. Last season, for instance, Gazprom and its brainchild Zenit from Petersburg, which immediately became the runner-up of the championship, didn't additionally let relax. It's clear the next year will be a very interesting period for Alekno from a perspective of a coach – it will take quite much time to change the game after León's departure. But it's also interesting how results in the new season will affect the future of volleyball in Tatarstan, in general. It's no secret the absence of local pupils in the starting line-up and their lowest importance in the team's successes is one of the few complaints about Zenit-Kazan. For instance, 22-year-old Andrey Sumrachyovsky will become the fourth outside hitter of the first team. He was born in Rybinsk, Yaroslavl Oblast, but covered the road from Zenit-2 to the Academy representing Kazan in the Supreme League A. Now he will certainly get a chance to show off in matches of the Russian Cup and the first team's training process. Once Alekno said a painful phrase about central blocker Ivan Demakov: ''It seems I've kept him in reserve for too long.'' This year Mr Alekno will celebrate his 10 th anniversary of his work in Kazan. And he's likely not against staying in the capital of Tatarstan for at least the same period. It's interesting: will making the local pupils world-class players become other motivation for him?

By Andrey Lopata
Tatarstan