Belgium’s Van Avermaet spikes against Japan in VNL 2021

Belgium come into the last competition day of the women’s Volleyball Nations League 2022 with their backs against the wall. They have to win their match against Japan to save a chance of avoiding relegation. The two best scorers of the VNL so far, Britt Herbots and Sarina Koga will test their skills against each other as their teams meet in Calgary at 11:00 local time (17:00 GMT) on Sunday.

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The Belgians stand 15th on three wins and six points out of 11 matches played. They are the lowest placed among the Challenger teams who do not have a guaranteed spot in next year’s VNL. All three of their victories in the competition so far have been achieved after five-set battles, against Thailand, Poland and Bulgaria. Their last success came exactly two weeks ago in the Philippines, when they wasted a two-set lead against Bulgaria before celebrating with a 17-15 win in the tie-breaker overtime. They have not been able to score any victories this week in Calgary as they met USA, Germany and the Netherlands. Their last chance to rise higher than their current position and avoid relegation would come with a win against Japan in their last match of the competition.

Japan, on the other hand, were one of the first teams to secure a spot in the VNL Finals to be held from July 13 to 17 in Ankara. They are fourth in the current standings on an 8-3 win-loss record and 24 points. They were unbeaten in the first two weeks of the competition, but have yet to win a match this week in Calgary. The Asian team arrive at Sunday’s game on a three-match losing streak, after being defeated by the Netherlands, Türkiye and Serbia.

Beating Japan alone would not be enough to guarantee Belgian survival. At the exact same time in Sofia, an encounter between Poland and hosts Bulgaria will also prove crucial in the race for avoiding relegation. The southern Europeans, also a Challenger team, stand right above Belgium in 14th place, also with a 3-8 win-loss record, but on nine points. Should the Bulgarians manage to win over the Poles, it would render a potential Belgian victory over Japan useless in the struggle for survival. However, if Belgium win and Bulgaria lose, they will switch their positions in the final standings and the Balkan Lionesses will face relegation.

It will be the sixth time Belgium and Japan meet at a major international competition. The Asians have won four of the previous five encounters. The European team’s only victory was achieved in four sets in VNL 2019. Japan beat Belgium in straight sets in VNL 2018 and in four sets in VNL 2021. On June 14 last year in Rimini, the Asian team produced a 3-1 (23-25, 25-22, 25-21, 25-21) win over the Belgians, with outside hitter Sarina Koga contributing 21 points, while her counterpart on the other side of the net, Britt Herbots delivered the match high of 26 points. Japan went on to finish third in the Preliminary Round on 12-3 and advance to the semifinals, while Belgium placed ninth on 8-7.

Herbots and Koga are the two players to have scored the most points among all participants in this year’s VNL. The Belgian outside leads the way with 277 points, including nine aces and 15 blocks, and is practically unreachable at the top of the chart, 59 points clear of the Japanese captain, whose tally of 218 points includes three aces and 17 blocks. The two strikers also lead the best attackers’ ranking on 253 and 198 successful spikes, respectively.

In addition to Herbots, who was also the best scorer of VNL 2021, the Belgian squad in Calgary for Sunday’s crucial match against Japan also includes Marlies Janssens, who was the best server of last year’s competition and the third best blocker of the 2021 Preliminary Round, and a number of other key players from their VNL 2021 squad like outside hitter and captain Celine Van Gestel, middle blocker Silke Van Avermaet or libero Nel Demeyer.

This week’s Japanese line-up also stars several of the players who helped defeat Belgium in their last head-to-head clash in VNL 2021. In addition to Sarina Koga, these are outsides Mayu Ishikawa and Kotona Hayashi and middles Haruyo Shimamura and Nichika Yamada.

The last competition day of the VNL 2022 Preliminary Round should also answer the question about the last remaining vacancy in the Finals. Thailand are the main candidate, but if they lose to Italy in Sofia and Germany beat USA in Calgary, coach Vital Heynen’s team could book a last-minute ticket to Ankara. China and Korea will open Sunday’s programme in the Bulgarian capital. The Netherlands and hosts Canada will close this phase of the VNL in Calgary.