Bulgaria handed Japan its first defeat of the 2013 FIVB World Grand Prix, edging the hosts 25-23, 25-23, 31-29 at Sendai City Gymnasium on Friday.
The match marked the first meeting between the nations in the World Grand Prix and the first time the Bulgarians had defeated Japan in any competition.
Japan fell to 6-1 and stayed on 17 points, while Bulgaria raised its record to 5-2 and 16 points and greatly improved its chances of reaching the finals in Sapporo. As the host, Japan qualifies automatically for the finals.
Japan had entered the showdown against Bulgaria with six wins from its first six pool games. Although the Bulgarians had done poorly in international competition in recent years, their team, which includes four players of 190 cm or taller, was coming off a victory against London Olympic gold medalist Brazil.
Although Japan coach Masayoshi Manabe’s squad won a bronze medal last summer in London, the team is undergoing a youth movement, and the Bulgarians proved to be a difficult challenge.
“The purpose here is to build a team with an eye on the Olympics in three years,” Manabe said. “Rather than a single victory in the game at hand, our thinking is middle and long term.”
Earlier in the day, the United States dispatched the Czech Republic 25-20, 25-20, 25-23. Japan will play the Americans on Saturday and finish Pool M on Sunday against the Czechs. The finals begin Aug. 28.
After the match, Manabe said, “It’s our first World Grand Prix with this new national team so I tried to use as many players as possible as a challenge for them, especially the younger players. (Akari) Oumi and (Arisa) Sato only joined us a few weeks ago and were not in the best condition and that was one of the reasons we struggled today. In addition, the combinations between our setters and attackers weren’t good. Our interplay is weak, so we have to raise our level for when we get to Sapporo where we will have five games and need to be consistent.
“We have to use the bad points from today’s game to help us improve.”
Japan started out cold and Manabe called his players off court after an errant hit by Miyu Nagaoka with his team trailing 5-1. Another wayward strike saw Bulgaria take an 8-2 advantage at the first technical timeout and that proved too big a mountain to climb for Japan, but only just.
Japan’s players expressed disappointment after the match.
“It was our first home game for this new style Japan team,” said captain Saori Kimura, who had a team-high 21 points on the night. “At first, we couldn’t do our best and we made big mistakes, especially at important moments, so that was really regrettable.”
Sato said, “I’m from Sendai so I wanted to do my best as a home player, but we couldn’t win. It’s a real pity.”
In the opening game, Manabe called his second timeout with Japan down 13-6, following a good block point and a kill by Emiliya Nikolova. The Bulgarian blocked Miyu Nagaoka on the next play and her team was eight points ahead at the second TTO.
Bulgaria coach Marcello Abbondanza responded with a timeout when Japan reeled off three straight points to make it 19-13, and did the same again when Japan closed to the gap to 21-17.
As Japan found its feet, the Bulgarians got jittery and the gap narrowed to 21-19. They earned four set points with a nice crosscourt kill by Elitsa Vasileva (19 points) and they needed all of them as Japan nearly pulled off a remarkable escape following spikes by Yukiko Ebata and Kimura and a block by Ebata. But Strashimira Filipova sent down a big hit to end the set at 25-23 and put her team ahead with a Game 1 triumph.
Neither team played convincing volleyball at the start of the second set, but the Bulgarians still held the edge. They led 8-6 at the first TTO before a couple of errors allowed Japan to level at 10-10. Three big points by Vasileva opened up a three-point gap, but a nice tipover by Ebata and two aces by Nana Iwasaka saw the teams level again.
Bulgaria got a big break at 21-21 when Rabadzhieva’s serve trickled over the net. Ebata then sent two kill attempts wide and Bulgaria had three set points. Again, the visitors needed them after spikes by Ebata and Kimura made the score 24-23, but Nikolova sent a spike through the Japanese defense to put her team 2-0 up.
Risa Shinnabe (nine points) came up with four points in the first phase of the third set, and a big thump down the middle saw Japan 8-5 ahead at the first TTO. Abbondanza called a timeout a point later, but Japan wasn’t firing on all cylinders and allowed Bulgaria to level at 11-11.
In a back-and-forth match, it came down to a few shots at the end. Two huge blocks by Iwasaka brought Japan its first set point, but it couldn’t convert as the two teams traded points to knot it at 29-29. A shot wide handed Bulgaria its fifth match point and Dobriana Rabadzhieva (13 points) finally killed off Japan’s challenge.
“I’m glad to win this very important game tonight and continue towards the finals,” Abbondanza said. “It was very important to start this last round with a win like this against a strong Japan team. I’m very happy to win 3-0 so congratulations to my team.”