Suspense, a tie-break, and a lot of nerfs. The French volleyball team, Olympic champions, qualified for the quarter-finals of the World Cup, beating Japan with difficulty, Monday, September 5, in Ljubljana.
The Blues will face the Italians, among their best enemies, on Wednesday in this same Stozice Arena (at 5.30 p.m.), in front of stands which could be fuller, since Slovenia will play in stride.
On Monday, only some 1,000 spectators attended this crazy round of 16, won by the Blues by a mouse hole after a Homeric fight, on their second match point after saving one! The final score reveals all the intensity of the fight imposed by an attractive Japanese team: 25-17, 21-25, 26-24, 22-25, 18-16.
The deliverance, after more than two hours of play, came as a symbol of the star player of the Blues, Earvin Ngapeth (17 points), who found a small diagonal of a furious smash. Proof of relief: the Blues, who are aiming for a first world champion title on Sunday in Katowice a year after the Olympic gold won in Tokyo, congratulated themselves after the point of victory as if they had won more than a simple eighth finals.
“It was a crazy match, very difficult for the nervesadmitted the central Barthélémy Chinenyeze, aware of having come very close to returning home early. Japan played an incredible game. We knew it was going to be hard, but now it feels good. »
As in the pools against Slovenia (3-2), where they erased several match points, they demonstrated their mental strength against the stunning and leaping Japanese coached by former French coach and international Philippe Blain (2001-2012 ). They came very close to a first victory against France since 2016.
But if against the Slovenes the French had quickly led in the tie-break (the decisive fifth round), they had to draw on their resources on Monday to catch up, ahead 4 to 1. They took a first advantage (7 -6) on a counter winner from Trévor Clévenot.
Clévenot, decisive at the end of the match, had been replaced quickly, because in check, against the Slovenes, by Kévin Tillie. But Tillie injured his foot during the game against Japan when he landed badly, and the roles were reversed.
The Blues were therefore able to count on their bench depth. The performances of Clévenot and Jouffroy bear witness to this, but also that of the usual replacement for the sharp position, Stephen Boyer. Entering the game during the match in place of Jean Patry, he was also decisive in the tie-break, with a winning attack allowing France to regain a one-point lead (10-9), just before a against victorious Barthélémy Chinenyeze (11-9).
“We don’t care about being beautiful”
Boyer’s contribution (17 points) was also significant in the third set: he hit the mark in two attacks at the end of the round, offering a two-point lead (22-20). A few minutes later, the Blues led two sets to one. They seemed to have the game in hand.
It was without counting on Japan and their fiery duo composed of Yuji Nishida (31 points), sharp in pocket size (1.87 m), and receiver-attacker Yuki Ichikawa (22 points), who won the fourth set before pushing the Blues to their limits. But this French team is aware of its strength and its effectiveness in difficult times.
“We are relieved, but also frustrated, because we have the impression that we were dominated in the match”recognised Earvin Ngapeth on the L’Equipe channel. “But we don’t care about being beautiful, playing a good game. Now, the important thing is to win, even if it wasn’t our best match. The adventure goes on “rejoiced the star player of the France team who expects another strong opposition from the Italians, whom the Blues know ” by heart “. “The mistakes we made tonight [lundi] will not forgive against them”warns Ngapeth.