Brilliant Bruno helps Argentina end Bulgaria hopes
Nicolas Bruno celebrates as Argentina ended their 2017 FIVB Volleyball World League campaign with a win over Bulgaria
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Wing spiker Bruno was simply everywhere at the Orfeo Superdomo, pacing the Argentines with 18 points (15 spikes, two blocks, one ace). Sebastian Sole also played a starring role (10 spikes, four blocks, one ace) while Cristian Poglajen hit double figures (12 spikes) as the hosts claimed their second World League win over Bulgaria this season.
Bulgaria - who had won 19 of the previous 28 major encounters between these two teams - never really got a grip on the game, in spite of fine performances from Tsvetan Sokolov (16 spikes, two blocks) and Rozalin Penchev (11 spikes, two blocks, one ace).
Plamen Konstaninov's side knew that only a win in Cordoba would give them a chance of qualifying for the Final Six in Curitiba, with a 3-0 or 3-1 victory guaranteed to put them above Canada in the Group 1 standings. Argentina, whose hopes of reaching the final round were ended by Serbia (2-3) on Friday, still came into this one on a serious high after claiming their first ever World League win over their neighbours and eternal rivals Brazil (3-1) on Saturday.
Argentina's Poglajen and Bulgaria captain Viktor Yosifov both started strongly in an intense opening to the game, as Bruno pushed the hosts into an early lead (6-4). Clearly buoyed by their historic win over Brazil, Julio Velasco's men soon opened up a five-point gap (13-8), with Pablo Crer and Martin Ramos dominating at the net. Bulgaria were on the ropes, but Nikolay Nikolov did what he could to keep them within touching distance (14-12).
The hosts suddenly began to purr, though, with Poglajen, Sole and captain Luciano De Cecco combining to help them move five clear (18-13). Crer was becoming ever more impermeable at the net as the Argentines began to streak away (22-15), and the hosts' middle blocker had the distinction of closing out the first set with a thunderous spike (25-16).
The second set was a cagey affair, as Nikolov got Bulgaria's noses in front by the first technical time-out (8-7). However, the Europeans were producing far too many errors to stay on top for very long, and Argentina were soon back in the ascendancy. Poglajen finished off a sensational rally with a lovely spike, before an ace from Bruno increased their lead to four points (16-12).
Ramos made the most of some superb defensive work from Alexis Gonzalez to keep the hosts three clear (20-17), before Bruno and Sole combined to wrap up the second set. The No. 10 put Argentina back on track after a brief Bulgaria comeback, following up a block with a well-placed attack. Middle blocker Sole - who grabbed 13 points in Saturday's win over Brazil - then smashed over back-to-back spikes as the South Americans opened up a two-set lead (25-21).
Needing to win the next three sets to have any chance of reaching Curitiba, Bulgaria made a solid start to the third set, with Penchev helping them open up a four-point lead (6-2). However, three successive blocks from Sole, Bruno and Ramos brought Argentina level (6-6), and it remained nip-and-tuck for the remainder of the set.
Poglajen and Yosifov traded aces as it went down to the wire (17-17), with substitute Todor Skrimov making a huge impact from the bench for Bulgaria. The wing spiker kept his side level with some resourceful play, even if another powerful effort from Crer left Argentina just three points from victory (22-21). Bulgaria had other ideas, though, winning three rallies in a row to bring up two set points (24-22). Argentina saved one, but Skrimov converted the second to keep his country's fading Final Six hopes alive (25-23).
Argentina made a strong start to the fourth set (3-1), but Skrimov continued to hammer away at the home defence (6-6). Argentina found another gear though, with a lovely soft touch from Ramos and yet another spike from Bruno stretching their advantage (14-10) midway through the set. Once again, Bulgaria's courage seemed to fail them when they needed it most.
Argentina substitute Alejandro Toro helped his side keep the visitors at arm's length, before a big spike from Ramos put them five clear (20-15). More magic from Bruno and an authoritative block from Sole brought up six match points (24-18). Sokolov saved the first, but - fittingly - Bruno rounded things out in style with his 15th spike of the game (25-19).
The FIVB World League adventure is thus over for both nations, but there can be no doubt about who will be going home happier on Sunday night. It was another tremendous performance from Argentina at the Orfeo Superdomo, as the fifth-placed team from the Rio 2016 Olympic Games proved that - on their day - they can beat anyone at this level.
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