Tehran, Iran, June 22, 2018 - An energetic effort from Saber Kazemi overwhelmed Korea and provided plenty of cheer for enthusiastic local fans in the FIVB Volleyball Nations League on Friday.
Both teams were playing for pride having been eliminated from the finals race and favourites Iran proved too strong with a hard-fought 3-1 (27-25, 23-25, 25-22, 25-23) triumph - their fifth of a disappointing campaign.
The 19-year-old Kazemi provided the early spark with a commanding first set performance to finish with 12 points, including 4 blocks, and he was ably supported by top-scorer Milad Ebadipour (16 points) and Morteza Sharifi (12 points), while Myung-Geun Song (13 points) and Gyeong-Bok Na (13 points) led a dogged Korea, who played far better than their 1-12 record indicates.
It was just the second time the teams had met at the world major level and it was a high-octane affair with both sides playing aggressively with little at stake. Iran's firepower and skill proved too much for Korea, who fought relentlessly throughout and showcased a slew of astounding defensive efforts.
In contrary to their lowly standing, bottom-placed Korea made a fast start through a red-hot Song as the visitors won four of the first five points to stun the vocal crowd at the Azadi Sports Complex. During an entertaining opener, with both teams going for broke, Korea were the steadier as they skipped out to a 12-8 lead.
Iran fought back through tenacious defending from Sharifi to level the scores but Na stepped up through powerful serves to restore Korea's advantage. There was sensational all-round play being traded by Na and Kazemi but Korea's adventurous game plan worked wonders until Iran stepped up their defence through the precocious teenager.
Iran clinched a 35-minute first stanza on their third set point to continue the indefatigable action to start fifth phase play in Tehran.
Much like the first set, Korea started the second quickly scoring five of the first seven points marked by well executed points conjured from setter Taekeui Hwang. However, Iran's firepower started to take hold and prove too much for their agile opponents as evidenced during a pulsating rally, which had players from both teams scrambling, capped off by a powerful spike from Sharifi as scores tightened mid-set.
Korea were fighting gamely highlighted by astounding full-stretched saves from Jeong Minsu to keep them afloat and the visitors found a new lease of life in the backend of the set. With constant pressure, Korea dominated Iran's shaky serve and impressively counterattacked to claim a tight second set and level proceedings.
In a contrast to the previous sets, Iran started the third quickly with Kazemi shrugging off a quiet second stanza to dominate on serve.
Under pressure, a wayward Korea buckled and found themselves in a deep hole much to the delight of the ardent local faithful. Korea were unable to win points off their serve until Song stepped up to fuel the underdogs into the lead.
A high-flying Ali Shafiei tried to rally his team and those efforts sparked Iran with Masoud Gholami imperious at the net to ensure fans breathed easier. Song's brilliance was single-handedly keeping Korea within striking distance but Iran had the answers with Ebadipour landing a couple of brutal blows to ensure the hosts claimed the crucial third set.
Korea's defence had to work in overdrive as the match was slipping from their grasp and a wayward attempted spike from Kynumin Kim ensured Iran entered the first technical timeout happier with a handy 8-4 edge.
To their credit, an unwavering Korea never gave up but Iran were determined to not follow in Bulgaria's footsteps and let slip a 2-1 advantage. Iran were made to work for their victory but finally closed it out on their third match point through a Taekeui Hwang service error as the crowd roared in delight.
Iran plays Bulgaria on Saturday, while Korea faces Germany.