Aaron Russell in action

The United States and France became the third and the fourth teams with stamped tickets to the men’s Volleyball Nations League 2022 Finals, after hosts Italy and Poland. The Americans came back from a set down against the French twice in their game in Osaka on Thursday to celebrate with a 3-2 (15-25, 25-22, 22-25, 25-14, 15-8) victory, their eighth in 10 matches since the start of the competition that puts them on top of the current standings on 22 points. The point won lifted the Olympic champions to the second place, also on 22 points, but with a 7-2 win-loss record, enough to start packing for the trip to the Final Round in Bologna from July 20 to 24.

· Watch all VNL 2022 matches live on Volleyball TV.

Outside hitter Aaron Russell led USA’s scorers with 18 points to his name, including three blocks and two aces, but refused to take individual credit for this success, claiming it was a team effort.

Aaron Russell’s top plays against France

“I always think I can do better, but I think it was a great team win for us,” he said after the match. “Everybody played well in defence and we were really flowing in side-out too. It was good for us to respond to those tough matches that we lost and be able to win in five sets. The last time I stepped on the court I was maybe one of the younger or middle-aged guys. Now it’s fun to be able to step into this more important role and give guidance and support to the young guys.”

French star Earvin Ngapeth produced a match-high 19 points, including two blocks and an ace, and spiking at a 57% success rate. He opened the match with a high-flying pipe shot for the first point. Russell immediately reacted with the same to level the score at 1-1. It stayed balanced through 7-7, when France went on a four-point run crowned by a Barthelemy Chinenyeze ace for 11-7. Another ace from opposite Stephen Boyer’s off-the-net serve extended it to 18-8. Nicolas Le Goff spiked through the middle to bring set point at 24-15. A wide attack by USA followed to close the set at 25-15 France’s way.

Earvin Ngapeth’s top plays against USA

The second set started well for the Americans with a perfectly placed serve by their other outside Torey Defalco putting them at a 2-0 lead. After 4-1, France scored three in a row with Ngapeth acing for 4-4, but it was a short-lived tie. Defalco hit the overpass after Russell’s powerful serve for a 7-5 American lead. Russell aced for 17-13 and middle Jeffrey Jendryk followed up with a monster block for 18-13. In the money time, France scored four in a row on Jean Patry’s turn to serve to level it at 22-22, but he made two unforced errors in a row to put the opponents at set point, which their captain David Smith converted to a 25-22 win with an ace.

A French series of four consecutive points was crowned with an ace by outside Trevor Clevenot for a 7-4 lead. Later on, another ace, this time by Chinenyeze, extended it to 14-9. The Americans fought back to narrow the gap, but they only managed to get back to within one at 18-17 and 19-18. Frequently taking on playmaker functions in the match, Ngapeth set the ball to Clevenot, who scored for 24-21. The Americans sided out, but then served into the net for 25-22 the way of France.


Stephen Boyer in attack

USA stepped up their blocking efforts while capitalising on abundant French mistakes to dominate the fourth set. An ace by opposite Kyle Ensing gave them a 10-7 lead. Setter Micah Christenson extended it to 12-8 with a monster block as the Americans were cruising towards tying the match. Set point was reached at 24-14 after a solo block by Defalco. Then a powerful serve by Russell led to a high-flying hit by Ensing for the 25-14 set winner.

The tie-breaker was completely one-sided. Christenson offered great variety in offence, while the French continued making too many unforced errors as the United States took an early lead and kept the pressure through the end to rejoice after a 15-8 win.

USA have two more games to play in Osaka, against Canada on Saturday and against Argentina on Sunday, while France will meet Brazil on Friday, Argentina on Saturday and Australia on Sunday.

Thursday’s programme continues with games between Germany and Australia and between Canada and Brazil in Osaka, followed by three fixtures in Gdansk: Italy v Iran, Bulgaria v Slovenia and Poland v China.