Iran eased past Serbia in straight sets (35-33, 25-21, 25-12) to book a last-eight place at the Volleyball Nations League (VNL).
Amirhossein Esfandiar chipped in a game-high 17 points for Iran on Saturday, with Amin Esmaeilnejad (16pts), Amirhossein Toukhteh (13), and Milad Ebadipour (10) also finishing in double figures, as Iran claimed a third win in four Week 3 outings in Gdansk, Poland.
World-class opposite spiker Aleksandar Atanasijevic had 14 points in the Serbian outfit, followed by Pavle Peric, who finished on 10.
With Argentina and Slovenia also in contention for a spot in the VNL Finals, the reigning Asian champion stepped on the court at the Ergo Arena, knowing a defeat could result in elimination at the preliminary round.
Behrouz Ataei’s men – on high confidence after a three-set win over Slovenia on the preceding night – rose up to the occasion, going neck-and-neck with the European powerhouse in the first set before an ace by skipper Ebadipour sealed a 35-33 victory.
Iran started right on the front foot in the second set – heading into the technical timeout with a six-point lead – and went on to win 25-21, again thanks to an Ebadipour’s ace.
The final set was all about Ataei’s side dominating the European heavyweight as a 25-12 win tied the largest margin in single set at this year’s event.
“The first-set win was the key to success today. Things would have become complicated for us if we hadn’t come out victorious. Our players dealt with the pressure and performed well in the toughest circumstances,” Iranian head coach Ataei said after the match.
When Iran was beaten in straight sets by Bulgaria at the start of second week – a third defeat for the country in five games – the VNL campaign looked all but over for Ataei’s young and inexperienced team.
However, a 3-0 win over volleyball giant USA kick-started a run of five victories – including a five-set thriller against Poland in Gdansk – in seven matches for Iran, which will now travel to Bologna, Italy, for the VNL Finals – starting with the quarterfinals on July 20.
“We had a difficult 40 days. The team’s performance was not quite impressive early on, but the players kept thriving game by game and played some excellent volleyball against strong opponents,” said Ataei, whose team will play in the final round for the third time in nine VNL campaigns.
Iran made it to the Final Six in 2019, having finished fourth in the FIVB Volleyball World League in 2014, before the annual event was rebranded as the Volleyball Nations League in 2018.