On Thursday late afternoon, The Netherlands routed Italy 3-0 (25-17, 25-20, 25-13) to open the programme of the 2017 women’s EuroVolley quarterfinals at the National Gymnastics Arena in Baku – and qualify for their second straight European Championship semi-final where they will play the winners of the matchup featuring hosts Azerbaijan and Germany. As for Italy, their below-par performance means that the country’s medal drought at the European Championship continues – their last podium finish to date being the gold medal they won in 2009. The result of today’s match reflects what the Netherlands did last year in the pool stage of the Rio 2016 Olympics – before they finished that tournament in fourth place.
Lonneke Slöetjes produced a first Dutch lead – and quite surprisingly, she did not do so at the net but while standing behind the service line (7-2) and with middle blocker Robin de Kruijf in their starting line-up after recovering from injury, the ‘Oranjes’ looked extremely confident as they set the tempo of the match (9-4). Italy finally seemed to find their rhythm as they closed in with Paola Egonu causing much of the damage (9-8). However, as the ‘Azzurre’ were a step away from completing their comeback, they started making too many mistakes whereas the Netherlands pushed with all of their weapons – and especially with Slöetjes and Anne Buijs – to restore their comfortable leadership in the match (18-12). On the other side of the net, a lack of consistency prevented Italy from performing to the best of their abilities and the first set soon ended with the Netherlands cashing it at a canter (25-17).
Italy were off to a disastrous start to the second set where they trailed 1-8 in no time despite a few changes made by coach Davide Mazzanti who replaced setter Alessia Orro and middle blocker Raphaela Folie with Carlotta Cambi and Sara Bonifacio, respectively. Even though Italy improved their performance in some elements of the game, the Netherlands had too much depth and quality on their side to feel any threat – and stormed to a 7-point advantage at the second technical timeout. The ‘Oranjes’ had some sort of a blackout as Italy scored four points in a row to close in from 20-11 to 20-15. The match was growing in intensity as Cambi finished a spectacular rally before Dutch team captain Maret Balkestein-Grothues stopped her side’s negative streak. The Netherlands were only two points away from doubling their lead in the match (23-20) as the game was finally living up to everyone’s expectations – and de Kruijf eventually made this happen (25-20).
Italy took some of the energy they had displayed towards the end of the second set into the third one, claiming an early lead before Buijs levelled the count at 4-4. The Italian hopes of a comeback were short lived as the Netherlands soon rallied to a 12-7 lead with Buijs being their most prolific scorer as in their previous matchup with Croatia (16-9). Italy were paying a high price for the absence of their injured main setter Ofelia Malinov and as Buijs scored from every possible angle, the Netherlands deservedly cruised to a compelling 3-0 victory.
Lucia Bosetti, player of Italy: “It is obviously a big disappointment for us. I do not want to search for excuses, but our stability was somehow gone after Ofelia’s [Malinov] injury. It was a big blow not only for the player herself, who was injured, but also for the team as a whole. We have had to re-build almost everything again from scratch since all of the things we had worked on for the whole summer were somehow gone. I am nevertheless very optimistic about the future of this team.”
Davide Mazzanti, coach of Italy: “We failed, of course, but compared to the World Grand Prix where we finished in second place, there has been a couple of major changes to our team. As a result, we have had to change the way we play – and against a team as organised as the Netherlands are, you only stand a chance if you show quality and consistency with your middle blockers and outside hitters, which is something we definitely were not able to do today. We will take our lessons and re-start from here, since this loss does not erase everything we achieved this season – from the qualification to the World Championship to our silver medal from the World Grand Prix Finals.”
Lonneke Slöetjes, player of the Netherlands: “I think we did a very good job. We played really clean Volleyball – we didn’t make a lot of mistakes, we served well, felt good on the court and celebrated every point. It was an easy win. I do not want to say anything about the next game because I will jinx it. We will watch the matches and we will be prepared – we’ll see.”
Jamie Morrison, head coach of the Netherlands: “This was a very convincing win. I said before that this team would continue to get better. We will find a thing or two also in this match to improve on for the semi-final and the final. I respect Team Italy a lot. It probably was not their best night, but we did not let them to be good – we took care of what we needed to take care of. We were the team that we wanted to be, that we have talked about, so I’m proud of my girls for going out there and doing a good job. We had a really good game plan coming in. They don’t have a lot of weaknesses, but we found a few and went after them, so I’m happy with the result of that process, not just with the score.”