Siberian express cruises to final match, Zenit to play for bronze
2013 CEV Volleyball Champions League - Men
Omsk, Russia, March 16, 2013. The Siberian weekend that rounds off this year’s CEV Volleyball Champions League got started on Saturday with a first sensation as the home heroes of Lokomotiv NOVOSIBIRSK came back twice from one set down to edge last year’s winners Zenit KAZAN (3:2; 19-25, 25-20, 22-25, 25-16, and 15-12). It was a game where much was at stake and hence the teams could not always display their best, but the “Siberian express” showed great composure especially in the tie-break to claim a spot for the final match coming up on Sunday at 8.30 pm local time (CET +6). Along the way to their win Lokomotiv were anchored by Sweden’s Marcus Nilsson who top scored with 23 points; Zenit KAZAN, on the other hand, went through ups and downs and even the real superstar of Russian Volleyball, Maxim Mikhailov, could not make the difference in the end. On Sunday Zenit will be playing for bronze, something their head coach Vladimir Alekno isn’t certainly happy with.
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After traveling for about 8 hours the night before, the fans of Lokomotiv contributed a great ambiance in the Soviet-style sports complex named after the late hockey player Viktor Blinov and everything was set for that much anticipated derby with Zenit KAZAN. Some 50 fans from the capital city of Tatarstan had also found their way to Omsk but still the large majority of the audience – including the local people from Siberia’s second largest city – was going to support Lokomotiv, with gadgets and scarfs featuring the corporate colours of the “home” team – red and green – distributed to the public.
Last year, as they participated in Europe’s elite competition for the first time, the home heroes did impress with their physical skills and the quality of their play, but eventually did not qualify for the final four as they were stopped in the Playoffs 6 by Turkey’s Arkas IZMIR. This year Lokomotiv once more topped the charts of their prelim group and got a bye all the way to the final four to cross here the ways of Russia’s most decorated team of the past decade, Zenit KAZAN. On the other side of the net, head coach Vladimir Alekno could rely on a star-studded group including a few Olympic champions from London 2012 plus three outstanding foreigners, i.e. setter Valerio Vermiglio of Italy as well as US Americans David Lee and Matthew Anderson.
The speaker fired up the fans of Lokomotiv already during the warm-up at the net and the countdown to the start of this much anticipated derby reached its climax. That Siberian “brotherhood” and solidarity the local officials had often spoken about in the past days did really turn into reality and one could easily get goose bumps already before the actions got started. So, there we go, after waiting for three months “Loko” could finally square off to vie for a spot in the final of Europe’s most prestigious club competition. The home heroes caught a promising start (4:1) with a couple of blocks to stop Evgeny Sivozhelez and Maxim Mikhailov as Zenit trembled a bit in reception. However, Mikhailov promptly powered back his side with an ace and a terrific crosscourt to draw level at 4. With Swede Marcus Nilsson gradually finding his way into the game, Lokomotiv got a narrow margin by the first technical time-out (8:6) but Zenit responded by levelling the score for a second time at 9. The Tatars steadily but confidently stepped up the quality of their performance moving to the front at 13:10; Lokomotiv head coach Andrey Voronkov stopped the game for a while and the fans profited of this opportunity to let the Siberian heroes feel all of their support and passion. It did not help much as Nilsson missed the next attack and only a few moments later Zenit called for the second mandatory stop (16:12). In order to stand a chance with KAZAN, Lokomotiv did need to play their best but apparently could not succeed in doing this. Though they still hadn’t showed their full potential, the guys from Tatarstan were in full swing (19:15); Vermiglio showed off his class to make the best out of a bad reception and marshal Maxim Mikhailov to another successful spike (21:17), before a couple of blocks paved the way for an easy final rush for the Tatars and the provisional 1:0 was sealed at 25-19 as Nilsson served well off the court.
Similarly to what had happened in the first set, Lokomotiv got off to a flying start (5:0), chiefly via some terrific blocks, and finally the crowd could get something to cheer about as their heroes looked more self-confident and were playing with good consistency (7:3). On the other side of the net Evgeny Sivozhelez – who had scored 8 points all alone in the first set, including three blocks – tried hard to compensate for this initial gap but Lokomotiv was not ready to slow their pace down (11:6). The “Siberian express” was playing much more intelligently, and with a lot more variations in offense, but after an ace by Mikhailov, their margin dropped down to two points (13:11). Left-handed Marcus Nilsson responded well by pocketing the next rally and “Loko” was eventually up by four as the second technical time-out was called. Though they had started the game as the underdogs – having already lost three times this season to Zenit – Lokomotiv had nevertheless high hopes for this match and their setter Alexander Butko excellently mastered all of his attackers (19:15). However, this did not mean that the fate of the set was already determined; Zenit tried to fight their way back (19:17) but in this attempt the Tatars needed to take some risks and this resulted into a few errors (22:18). Nilsson was on a class of his own and as the set looked almost gone, Zenit mentor Vladimir Alekno asked for a time-out for a very last attempt to change the course of the game. It did not take that long for Nilsson to call for a series of set balls (24:19) with the second opportunity for the 1:1 eventually cashed by middle blocker Artem Volvich (25-20), the tallest player on court standing at 213 cm.
Zenit showed their determination to bounce back right from the early phases of the third set (5:1) helped by good serving contributed by Alexander Abrosimov. The Tatars were vying for their fourth appearance in a Champions League final – as well as for their third title in the competition – and they were evidently highly motivated to achieve this goal on “home” soil. The hosts of Lokomotiv played with glowing hearts but were unable to reduce the gap (12:7) until the audience was driven crazy as, after a series of incredible actions in defence, Lukas Divis scored for the 13:10 that resulted into a time-out asked by Alekno. Zenit got back on track by cashing the next three rallies (16:10) but the “Siberian train” was definitely not yet derailed as a block by Ilya Zhilin on Mikhailov reduced once more the gap to only two points (19:17). Zenit fired back to move up 22:18 heading down the final stretch, Nilsson aced for the 22:20 to briefly re-open the door, but after missing out on two set balls and going for a time-out, the guys around superstar Maxim Mikhailov claimed a deserved 2:1 lead in sets via their American spiker Matthew Anderson (25-22).
After a close start (2:2), Lokomotiv accelerated their pace to set the tempo of the game (5:2) in set 4 and lead the way there at the first technical time-out (8:6). KAZAN was struggling to find a way to draw the score and especially Sivozhelez lacked the impressive consistency he had showed to anchor Zenit in set 1 and 3. His mistakes helped Lokomotiv stay in contention for the tie-break (13:9) and by this moment Nikolay Apalikov – another Olympic champion from London 2012 – though still struggling with a minor injury joined the game for the Tatars. Lokomotiv continued their show (19:12) with team captain Alexander Butko showing great skills also from the serving line. Zenit head coach Alekno changed his setter and opposite with Igor Kolodinsky and Alexey Cheremisin replacing Vermiglio and Mikhailov but the set was basically gone (20:13). Some more mistakes by the Tatars – at this moment playing with their second lines – paved the way with gold for “Loko” with the eventual 2:2 being sealed by Nilsson with an ace (25-16).
Alekno returned to his initial starting six for the tie-break – including first libero Obmochaev – with the only exception being Apalikov for Lee to possibly stop the march of their Siberian opponents. The deciding set started with two mistakes from the serving line before Nilsson profited of a bad reception by the Tatars to score his first point of the fifth set. All players looked quite nervous and tense as much was at stake and the initial phases contributed a series of unforced errors. By exploiting the lack of composure showed by their opponents, Zenit went up 5:3 but Divis took his side by the hand to make it 6 all. The quality of the game was improving rally after rally and Lokomotiv cruised to the front (8:7) as teams switched sides on an error by Anderson. Nikolay Apalikov promptly levelled the score but Sivozhelez and Mikhailov were blocked twice in a row to see Lokomotiv move up 10:8. Alekno called for a time-out in an attempt to break his opponent’s momentum, but Zhilin brought the next rally home for the provisional 11:8. Only four points did separate Lokomotiv from the final and the countdown got started as Zenit seemed unable to fight their way back. Mikhailov served into the net (13:10) before Zhilin cashed three opportunities to claim a spot for the Champions League final (14:11). Alekno used his second time-out, Anderson could take the next point but Ilya Zhilin made the Siberian dream come true (15-12) for the first major sensation of the weekend.
“We have to forget this match and stay focused on the final game because if we don’t win tomorrow, this victory and the comeback we performed in this match will be useless” the team captain of Lokomotiv, Alexander Butko, said after the game.
“The team that makes more mistakes is always the side that eventually loses. This defeat does not come as a surprise as we made a lot of mistakes today. Congratulations to our opponents on their win and good luck for the final match” Zenit mentor Vladimir Alekno stated. “Ilya Zhilin came from the bench for Lokomotiv and he did a great job helping his side claim this well-deserved victory”.