Japan facing tough battle with Brazil in world semifinals

by Richard Baker

The 2010 FIVB Women’s World Volleyball Championship has come down to the key semifinal stage with defending champion Russia taking on 2010 FIVB World Grand Prix winner USA and world No. 1 Brazil playing host Japan in the key matches for positions 1-4 on Saturday in Tokyo, while another eight teams contest the semifinals for positions 5-8 and 9-12.

With Thursday and Friday as rest days, the pressure will be turned on from 12:30 p.m. on Saturday as the first semifinals matches will take place at Yoyogi Gymnasium and Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium.

Brazil (1) vs. Japan (5)

Yoyogi — 6 p.m.

Three-time champion Japan has had a great run in the tournament in front of its home fans, only suffering losses to China and Russia to finish second in Pool E and reach the top four for the first time since 1982, but now it goes up against an unbeaten Brazil side which topped Pool F and looks like the only side which can seriously challenge Russia for the title.

Recent history is on Japan’s side given it overcame Brazil at the 2010 World Grand Prix in August, but prior to that, the South Americans, who have yet to win the world championship crown but have collected two silver medals in 1994 and 2006, had won the sides’ past 20 encounters.

Overall, the Olympic champions have won 42 of 53 meetings with Japan. Despite a 3-0 loss to Russia on Wednesday, the hosts have shown that their home support can give them an edge and they have a potent attacking threat in Saori Kimura, who is the second-best scorer in the tournament. With both Japanese and Brazilian fans making themselves heard, expect this to be a passionate exchange.

Russia (7) vs. U.S. (3)

Yoyogi — 3 p.m.

Holder and six-time winner Russia is the team to beat in this tournament with an undefeated record over nine matches with just six sets conceded, a record only matched by Brazil.

Having only lost six world championship games since 1994, Russia, which has only finished twice outside the top three (sixth in 1986 and 1982) in 14 editions dating back to 1952, is the strong favorite.

It topped its second-round group ahead of an American side which arrived in the semifinals by the skin of its teeth following Cuba’s astonishing win against Italy in the last match of Pool F.

The U.S. lost two matches in the second round — to world No. 1 Brazil and Italy — to finish second in its pool, but the World Grand Prix winner has history against it with Russia having won 17 of the 28 matches between the two nations including five of the last six.

One of the interesting matchups sees U.S. star Destinee Hooker (the fifth-best scorer in the tournament) come up against Russian spiking machine Ekaterina Gamova (the sixth-best scorer). That could prove to be a monumental clash.

The contest is a repeat of the 2002 FIVB Women’s World Championship semifinal when the U.S. beat Russia 3-2.