Zenit KAZAN claim sixth Champions League title after spine-tingling final
Kazan, Russia, May 13, 2018. Zenit KAZAN came back from a scary deficit in the fourth set as well as in the tiebreak to cancel a match point for Cucine Lube CIVITANOVA and cash their second opportunity for an eventual 3-2 victory (29-27, 18-25, 23-25, 25-23, 17-15) to add a record overall sixth and fourth straight CEV Volleyball Champions League crown to their resume. This accounts for Russia’s seventh consecutive title in Europe’s elite club competition – a reign that has been lasting since Zenit KAZAN claimed another just as dramatic final with PGE Skra BELCHATOW back in 2012 in Lodz. A sell-out crowd of 7,000 fans celebrated yet another triumph for the team coached by Vladimir Alekno – as Wilfredo Leon and Maxim Mikhailov scored together as many as 57 points for the Russian side in the title-deciding match at Basket-Hall. Cucine Lube had to be content with silver, which is nevertheless their best result in the competition since they won the title in 2002.
A truly spectacular show set the tone for the ‘grand finale’ of this year’s Champions League – as Dina Garipova, Russia’s entry to the 2013 edition of the Eurovision Song Contest who hails originally from Tatarstan, performed live on the permanent stage of the Basket-Hall before a group of acrobats entertained the crowd in attendance.
The final was a repeat of the gold medal match from the 2017 FIVB Men’s Club World Championship held in Krakow back in December – which Zenit KAZAN claimed by three sets to none. Was the Russian ‘armada’ going to repeat that same performance or were the Italian ‘underdogs’ going to pose a threat to the reign of the team from the capital city of Tatarstan? The ambiance was truly impressive with a sell-out crowd of 7,000 people waiting to see yet another show of strength from the team coached by Vladimir Alekno.
The match was likely to feature a number of interesting duels – like those between Cuban-born outside hitters Wilfredo Leon and Osmany Juantorena, opposites Maxim Mikhailov and Tsvetan Sokolov, liberos Alexey Verbov and Jénia Grebennikov, to name only a few. Lube’s block on Mikhailov prompted the first technical timeout with the Italians leading 8-6; the intensity and quality of the game was up to the standards of a Champions League final with the players on both sides of the net fighting like warriors would do for their survival. Lube came back from a two-point deficit at the second technical timeout by scoring three times in a row but soon trailed again at 17-19. A rollercoaster of emotions continued all the way until the very end with Lube claiming a first set point at 24-23. Both sides failed to capitalise on two opportunities to claim a first edge in the race for gold before local hero Leon sealed a 29-27 win for Zenit with one of his specialties - an ace.
Despite the missed opportunities, Lube looked relentless in the early stages of the second set (5-2, 8-6) but Zenit KAZAN did not falter. The fans could witness many long, exciting rallies but an impressive number of mistakes as well – especially since both teams attempted to put a lot of pressure on the opposition with powerful services. Lube had a three-point gap at 19-16 as the set was heading towards its all-deciding phase and they widened it to five at 23-18. Two consecutive blocks on Leon resulted in a 25-18 win for CIVITANOVA, thus keeping the fate of the match wide-open.
Lube continued to play with that same intensity in the third set as well (8-5) as Zenit were obviously struggling to find their best game – with superstars Leon and Mikhailov underperforming compared to Saturday’s semi-final with Sir Colussi Sicoma PERUGIA. Leon, while playing his last match for the team from Tatarstan, rose to the occasion as Zenit closed in at 21-19 with an ace from the Cuban-born outside hitter but Cucine Lube eventually held on to their advantage (25-23) to move a step closer towards seizing their first Champions League title since 2002.
Zenit struggled to find their way back into the game in the fourth set with Lube displaying impressive consistency as the visitors set the tempo of the match early on (8-5). The titleholders, however, were not yet ready to relinquish their crown and they levelled the count at 12-all after blocking Sokolov. Lube responded in style, with Sokolov and Juantorena restoring the Italian leadership at 16-13 but Zenit chased their opponent relentlessly, and their efforts paid off when the score eventually stood at 18-18. Lube were only four points away from a sensational triumph but Zenit edged ahead for the first time at 22-21 and Leon performed when it mattered the most to call for a tiebreak (25-22).
Despite a relatively shaky start to the tiebreak, Lube soon redeemed themselves to lead 5-2. Zenit fought ad much as they could, but CIVITANOVA found in a truly phenomenal Sokolov their main asset for such a ‘heated’ moment (11-7). Zenit were back in the game with four straight points (11-11), including one resulting from a video challenge. Lube won a challenge as well to make it 13-12 in their favour but the drama was just about to reach its climax when Leon levelled at 13-all. A cool-blooded Sokolov secured a first match point for the visiting team but Leon cancelled it in style. Lube lost a challenge on an alleged touch by the Russian block for Zenit to have an opportunity to retain their title – but Mikhailov served into the net. It took only a few more moments for Leon to score two straight points, including an ace to send 7,000 fans into euphoria.
Maxim Mikhailov (RUS/Zenit KAZAN)
Outside Hitters: Osmany Juantorena Portuondo (ITA/Cucine Lube CIVITANOVA) and Wilfredo Leon Venero (POL/Zenit KAZAN)
Middle Blockers: Dragan Stankovic (SRB/Cucine Lube CIVITANOVA) and Marko Podrascanin (SRB/Sir Colussi Sicoma PERUGIA)
Opposite: Tsvetan Sokolov (BUL/Cucine Lube CIVITANOVA)
Setter: Alexander Butko (RUS/Zenit KAZAN)
Libero: Jénia Grebennikov (FRA/Cucine Lube CIVITANOVA)
Listen to what winners and losers, Dream Team members & much more had to say...
1. Zenit KAZAN (RUS)
2. Cucine Lube CIVITANOVA (ITA)
3. Sir Colussi Sicoma PERUGIA (ITA)
4. Zaksa KEDZIERZYN-KOZLE (POL)
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