Japan was forced to rally from a nervy start and a one-set deficit against Venezuela but got its Olympic qualification campaign off to a positive start on Saturday with a 3-1 win as the battle for Rio 2016 men’s volleyball places began in Tokyo.
The high-flying trio of Kunihiro Shimizu (21 points), Masahiro Yanagida (15) and Yuki Ishikawa (19) lived up to their star billing, providing the bulk of the Asian champions’ scoring punch in the 26-28, 25-20, 25-19, 25-19 victory.
“In the second set we were having an uphill battle, we were trailing on many occasions but I really felt strongly we could overcome the headwinds. I think our resolve in the end led us to a win,” said Yanagida, who was key in the team turning its fortunes.
“(Hideomi) Fukatsu, the setter, gave me good balls, good sets, so I was never in a difficult situation to spike. I felt really relaxed because of his setups, and that’s one factor (in my good performance).”
Fukatsu sent equal praise the way of his big hitter.
“Today Yanagida was on fire, so I thought I would send more sets his way. I was mindful of that. I wanted to give the ball to all the players that were showing good form so that the team would gain the momentum,” said Fukatsu.
The match began with neither team being able to gain separation in the first set, with Ishikawa and Venezuela’s Edson Valencia trading spike points to keep it close.
But Valencia made the breakthrough both teams were searching for, piercing Japan’s central defense to put his team up 27-26 before his compatriot Andy Rojas laid a successful block on an Ishikawa spike to put the hosts one set down.
Japan built an early second set lead only to see Venezuela claw its way back and draw ahead, sending an audible ripple of apprehension around the packed Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium.
Shimizu came to Japan’s rescue, however, stringing a run of vicious dipping serves together as well as a timely dig save and spike down the line to put Japan over the top in the second stanza (25-20).
The second set may have settled Japanese nerves, as the third and fourth went comparatively smoothly, proving too much for a Venezuela team that was ultimately overmatched on the day.
Earlier, the world No. 2 ranked Polish team began slowly in its match against Canada with errors, particularly on serve, keeping the maple leaf-clad squad in the first set. Poland soon got on track, though, taking the first, 25-18.
Canada rode a fast start to the second, taking an 8-1 lead and holding it to even the match at 1-1 (25-17). The teams traded the next two sets with Poland winning the third 25-21, and Canada the fourth, 25-18.
Poland was focused from the start of the decider, running out with a 15-9 win to take the match. Bartosz Kurek did the most damage for the Poles, scoring 17 points.
Iran had little trouble in its straight-sets win (25-19, 25-17, 25-18) over Australia in the first match of the tournament.
Led by Amir Ghafour’s 19 points, Iran, looking to qualify to the Olympic Games for the first time, ensured no hiccups out of the gate.
France entered its match against China having won eight of nine match ups between the teams at the world level. And that trend continued, with France overcoming a blip in the second set to win 3-1 (25-13, 22-25, 25-23, 25-21).
France, looking to qualify for its first Games since 2004, got an excellent performance from Antonin Rouzier who finished with 22 points, with 20 coming on spikes, while Kevin Tillie provided solid backup scoring 19 of his own.
Four teams qualify for Rio 2016 from this tournament — the top Asian team is guaranteed a place, and the three other highest ranked teams after the seven matches held over the next week qualify a slot.