The Champions League Final Four is the best weekend in the volleyball calendar. The best teams from the biggest and most important volleyball continent gather in one place for the biggest and most important title. With the best teams are the best players and the most important dignitaries and officials and hardest core of pure fans. I love it. And if it is in Poland, all the better. Poland has in general the best and most informed fans of any European country, or at least any than I have visited. They love their club, but they also love their country and they love volleyball. So it was mostly with pleasure (although some sadness) that I travelled back to Lodz for the second attempt at deciding this year’s title.
The general mood was lower key than three weeks ago as most of the important people had done their business the first time and didn’t return for the actual games. That left the games just for fans, which was fun too. After the semi finals there was plenty of discussion. In the first semi, Dynamo Moscow beat hosts Belchatow easily. After jumping to an 8-2 lead, Belchatow faded and never had a chance. Dynamo setter Grankin completely dominated the Polish block and made it easy for all spikers with Brazilian Dante leading the way, while only Wlazly stood up for the hosts. Frenchman Antiga was especially disappointing, although he certainly had friends. The second semi was a completely diabolical game. Those who rate the quality of a game on the number and length of rallies would have enjoyed the match immensely. For the rest of us, it was like having our fingernails pulled out. Slowly. Over the course of two hours. Trento (the overwhelming favourites) played terribly in losing a set to Slovenia champions Bled. And although they were never in danger of losing the match, their performance was way below expectations. Only Juantorena played close to his best and he was clearly hobbled by injury, while second setter Zydaglo (Rafa won’t play against this season) didn’t make it any easier for his spikers.
That created two talking points around the dinner tables and bars that evening. Number one, why were Belchatow so poor. The players blamed it on the pressure of having to make the final while hosting the event. Those with long memories (ie me) remembered exactly the same excuse after exactly the same result two years ago. Given that Belchatow has the best team (Polish) money can buy and includes two previous CL winners and no less than five European Championships gold medallist, it seems a long shot that they should be so affected by pressure. Although in fairness from outside you can never be sure exactly happens inside the club. The other talking point was whether Dynamo actually had a chance to win. The Italian contingent lamented that the Trento coach makes the team practice too much and strongly insinuated that too much practice was directly responsible for the below normal performance. This made me laugh because it is typically Italians to complain about practicing too much. They didn’t mention the fact that this season, Trento had already won the World Club Championships and the Italian Cup and were now in the final of the Italian Championships and the Champions League, leaving them only two matches away from an unprecedented quadruple. On top of Trento being obviously tired and overworked, Dynamo had played well and looked fresh (from losing the league semis so easily) and ready.
So after sleeping on those thoughts, the day dawned for the actual matches. In the bronze medal match, Belchatow returned to their normal form and with only a couple of scares accounted for Bled. Wlazly was again the dominant figure, but this time he had help from Winiarski and Kurek, with Antiga again a spectator. And so for the decider. It turns out there are (at least) two truisms in volleyball. The first is never trust a Russian team in a big match. The second is even simpler. The team that practices more and better is better prepared when the moment arrives. When the moment did arrive the Russians hit their first spike into the stands and Trento were ready. They completely dominated the match in every aspect from the first point and never let up until the last. They served really well, their block was dominating (altough they only made four direct points) and with Vissotto, Kaziyski and Juantorena they had more than enough fire power to finish off what they needed to. But to me, the most outstanding feature was their team play and organisation. No detail was too small and no ball was allowed to get near the floor. They just had every base covered and a solution to every problem. It was a complete performance and they were deserved winners. Although the whole thing was over in only 77 minutes, it was 77 totally enjoyable minutes and well worth the trip.
The official CEV wrap up with match report, player awards and links to picture galleries is here.