Cordoba, Argentina, June 17, 2017 - Tsvetan Sokolov
was the star of the show for Bulgaria as they kept alive their hopes of a place in the Final Six in Curitiba with a sensational 3-2 victory over Balkan rivals Serbia (25-18, 20-25, 25-23, 24-26, 15-12).
Opposite spiker Sokolov notched up 20 points for the Bulgarians as they secured their first win over neighbours Serbia since all the way back in 2006. Rozalin Penchev
chipped in with 12 points as Bulgaria also produced a monstrous performance at the net, with a total of 21 blocks - including six for Nikolay Nikolov and five apiece for Sokolov and Penchev.
On the other side of the net Uros Kovacevic
and Aleksandar Blagojevic
were Serbia's standout performers, with 12 and 11 points respectively. The defending champions may have taken their foot off the gas after booking their ticket for Curitiba with victory over hosts Argentina on Friday, but they still pushed their neighbours all the way in Cordoba. Bulgaria, who came into the match with a 3-4 record, absolutely had to win to have any chance of reaching the Final Six in Brazil. Quick links - Volleyball:
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Serbia's Srecko Lisinac
set the tone with a superb opening block as the two nations traded furious blows in the first set. After a tight start, the Bulgarians began to inch ahead thanks to some superb work at the net from Penchev and Nikolov. Sokolov also started to slip through the gears with two spikes in quick succession, as the men in green extended their advantage to 16-14 by the second technical time-out.
Serbia coach Grbic Nikola hauled off Drazen Luburic - his side's top scorer against Argentina with 19 points - and replaced him with Blagojevic, but the defending champions struggled to find their rhythm as Bulgaria secured the first set after 27 minutes (25-18).
It was a similar story at the start of the second, with a few mistakes beginning to creep in on both sides. After a nip-and-tuck opening, Serbia started to look a bit more like their usual selves, with Kovacevic landing a superb spike for 7-5. With their World League campaign on the line, though, the Bulgarians soon hit back, and an enormous spike from Penchev brought them level at 14-14.
In spite of more good defensive work from Nikolov, a few cracks began to appear in the Bulgarian wall as Serbia moved into a 19-17 lead. Splendid blocks from Marko Podrascanin and Nikola Jovovic made it 21-17, and in spite of a late Bulgaria rally the Serbians saw out the set 25-20 to level up the match.
The third set followed a similar script to the first two, with very little between the teams in the early exchanges. Some clever play from Penchev gave Bulgaria a slender lead (10-9), but Podrascanin soon had the Serbians back on level terms (14-14). The Bulgarians continued to forge ahead at 20-18, but a fabulous block from Petar Krsmanovic kept Serbia alive as it went down to the wire. Kovacevic briefly put the reigning champions ahead at 23-22, but a poor spike attempt into the net saw the Bulgarians secure the set and move back into the driving seat (25-23).
Bulgaria then made a lightning-quick start to the fourth set, easing into a 3-0 lead and stretching that to 6-3 after Nikolov's terrific spike. Plamen Konstantinov's side continued to terrorise the Serbians at the net, with Sokolov doing plenty of damage, and soon found themselves 11-5 ahead. Bulgaria continued to lead the way and the match looked dead and buried at 23-19, but there was to be a twist in the tale as the Serbians produced a stunning late surge.
A phenomenal diagonal spike from Penchev gave the Bulgarians match point at 24-23, but Serbia drew level following a challenge, and then earned themselves a set point as Aleksandar Okolic denied Svetoslav Gotsev with a huge block. Milan Katic converted to ensure that an already enthralling contest would go the distance (26-24).
All credit should go to Bulgaria, though, as they held their nerve in the decider. More magic from Sokolov helped them to a 5-2 lead, and this time the men in green refused to buckle under Serbian pressure. The world champions successively closed the gap to 9-8 and 13-12, but Penchev brought up another match point for Bulgaria, and this time they made it count as Petar Krsmanovic's attempt for Serbia went into the net.
After a fantastic encounter, Bulgaria thus moved to 4-4 and still have a chance of reaching the Final Six when they take on hosts Argentina on Sunday. Serbia, who have already qualified for Curitiba along with France, slip to 6-2.