Champions for life: Zenit-Kazan becomes most decorated club of Russia
In Rome, while drawing conclusions of the flawless victory of Vladimir Alekno's team in the Champions League, experts, coaches and very players presupposed that for Zenit it would be even more complicated to excel its rivals in Final Six of the Russian Superleague and win the next ninth consecutive title than to confirm the title of the strongest club of the Old World. The presuppositions were true – the first match against Lokomotiv already showed they all come to play with more energy against the reigning champion and favourite. The victory that made the Kazan club most decorated in Russia is more valuable. Famous TV commentator and permanent author of Realnoe Vremya Aleksandr Norden tells its price.
Final Six – optimal format
Russian Volleyball Federation is not afraid of changing the scheme to decide the Russian Superleague champion almost every year. The best collectives of Russia already coped with each other in Final Six in Yekaterinburg in 2014. Then Alekno's players reached the decisive match and won it against its first rival of this final Lokomotiv from Novosibirsk having taken the sixth gold in a row. In the 2014/2015 season, the champion was known during a full-fledged playoff. In 2016, Zenit became the champion of the regular championship for the eighth time.
Before this competition, major rival of the Kazan players on the domestic stage Belogorie headed by Gennady Shipulin also had the same amount of titles, eight. The Lions made up a group with the hosts of the Final Six, two-time champions of Russia Dynamo who reached the final according to the results of the regular championship like Zenit. Fakel that finished sixth in the playoff and won Ural was the third participant.
Vladimir Alekno: ''All players in our team are ready to fight for the trophy''
Gazprom-Yugra volleyball players who took eighth place in the competition and Kuzbass who sensationally lost the fight for medals and finished fifth were the rivals of the Tatarstan team except Lokomotiv. By the way, most talented Kazan pupil Viktor Poletaev was on loan at Kuzbass.
At the press conference before the tournament, all coaches of the participating teams unanimously claimed the current format is more objective to decide the champion of the country. Having thanked his colleagues for congratulations on the fifth title of Champions League winner in history, Vladimir Alekno emphasised: ''All players in our team are ready to fight for the trophy.''
After the return from the Eternal City, the ''gladiators'' had two days off and then started to prepare for the trip to the capital. Final Four at Palolottamatico showed that the Kazan players and, first of all, leaders – Mikhailov, Anderson, León, Verbov – are in crazy shape. This is why the major goal of Alekno's staff was to try to conserve that shape until the Moscow final and, most importantly, to refill the spent reserve of emotions that erupted after every big victory. The victory in Rome was so.
''All play well but Zenit wins''
The words in the title of this paragraph belong to head coach of Lokomotiv Plamen Konstantinov. He pronounced them after the game where his players gave a real fight to the favourite and were about to win. But Zenit performed its famous comeback from 0-2 (in sets) and won against the Novosibirsk players – 3-2. Having stolen a very difficult decisive set with a score of 19-17, the Kazan players made the first step towards the semi-final and simultaneously made sure that the presuppositions that it would be very hard to defend the title of the champion of Russia were correct. The reaction of the Lokomotiv mentor whose words we mentioned above is clear. Vladimir Alekno gave his own completely different opinion about the game of his team that had not faced such a rival during the championship: ''It was the worst game in the season''.
After the defeat inflicted by Lokomotiv, Gazprom-Yugra needed to win Zenit 3-0 or 3-1 to reach the semi-final. It was one of the impossible missions. It is no surprise that Khabibullin's players could not achieve the result in the match against Alekno's team. 3-0 in sets, and Kazan was in the final.
Summing up the results of the fight, Vladimir Alekno noted that the victory was won in an ''energy saving mode''. As a result, having started the tournament without difficulties, the Kazan team gathered good speed and was the first to reach the next round in the group. Zenit got its principal rival – Belogorie whom Alekno's players did not let enter the Roman Champions League Final Four after a duel of two matches in the middle of April.
In the parallel group of Moscow Final Six, The Lions, Dynamo and Fakel exchanged victories, but Novy Urengoy left behind according to additional results. Belogorie of Shipulin-Kosarev (the senior coach who is almost heading the game of Belogorie players) tried to oppose the attacking variant of the line-up with three outside hitters – Khtey, Tetyukhin and Yereschenko – to Zenit. But the first set of the semi-final showed that the power of the two eight-time champions of Russia at the moment was incomparable. Same 3-0 – the Kazan players easily won. After the game, Vladimir Alekno was satisfied with the actions of his guys. Mikhailov (20) and León (15) scored more points among them. And the team started to prepare for the decisive battle for the gold against the hosts of Final Four – Dynamo-Moscow who won Lokomotiv in the other semi-final 3-0.
Z People already won the trophy against the second team of the regular championship – Dynamo. They won Yury Marichev's players in the match for the Russian Supercup 3-0 on 25 September. The Kazan players defeated the Moscow colleagues with the same score in Surgut in December in the final for the Russian Cup. Alekno's players let the host team win one set 3-1 in a February match of the Russian Championship in Dynamo Sports Hall on Lavochkina Street.
Experienced coach Marichev has a strong well-knit collective whose foundation consists of only Russian volleyball players many of whom – striker Bakun, setter Grankin, Markin, Scherbinin, Berezhko, Kruglov – were or are national team players or candidates to the national squad. The Kazan players treated the rival with responsibility. Acting carefully, they maintained the margin of up to 3-4 points in the first set. Belogorie tried to arrange the attack, defend well near the net but everything was in vain – León&Co did not let them approach. The score of 25-20 thoroughly illustrated the ratio of power in the set and set the pace of the match.
Former star of Zenit Volkov made the score 3-0 in favour of Dynamo in the second set. Here Dynamo's fortune ended, and the Kazan ''machine'' started to gather speed. Falling behind 13-17, 14-18, Moscow tried to reduce the margin. But Zenit did not allow the rival to get closer at arm's length. The second set ended 25-17, and the final of the match became a formality.
Kazan was not going to drag the match on and its own award ceremony. They confidently also led the game in the final set having 3-4 points more. Yury Marichev changed the squad, fielded Antipkin. Everything was in vain – Zenit was crying for a victory and did not want to delay the celebration. To tell the truth, considering the celebration in Rome, it caused concerns – wouldn't they celebrate too much and become ''champion chronicles''?
They did not. They walloped Dynamo and became nine-time champions of Russia. Sports capital of Russia, be proud of your champions! We have guys who made cry and celebrate. We have a team that is a dynasty. We have a rational administration, smart management, optimal selection, coach-winner, players who are hungry for victories… What else is needed for happiness? To win the club world championship? They will, no doubts… And find new stimuli to new victories… They are gladiators! These don't stop. Come on, champions!!!