Maritza survives second set scare to march on to long-anticipated success

It had been over 22 years since the last time Maritza Plovdiv was able to advance beyond the first round of a European Cup tournament, but this dry period is finally over as on Wednesday evening the Bulgarian champions managed to eliminate Belgium’s Dauphines Charleroi in the sixteenthfinals of the 2016 CEV Volleyball Cup - Women.  After a straight-set victory in the first leg, the Yellows from Europe’s oldest living city won the return game at home by 3-1 (25-21, 17-25, 25-15, 25-13)* to advance to the next round of the continent’s second strongest club tournament.

It had also been as many as 14 years since a European club tournament match in any team sport was held in Plovdiv.  After a 2001 basketball encounter between Akademik Test Plovdiv and Russia’s Dinamo Moscow, due to the bad conditions of the local halls and stadiums, football and volleyball teams from the country’s second city had been forced to entertain their continental rivals away from home, but this time the recently built Plovdiv University hall presented the perfect setting for a great sports battle.  The spectators, among whom Mayor Ivan Totev, Bulgarian men’s national team coach Plamen Konstantinov, former Russian and Bulgarian women’s national teams coach Vladimir Kuzyutkin and many others, created a great ambience for this long-anticipated event.

In the first set the balance was maintained through 6-6, after which Maritza’s great blocking gave the home team the edge.  The Bulgarians scored five in row with Viktoriya Grigorova serving to break away to a 19-12 lead and all the Belgians could do is narrow the gap down to the final 25-21.  In the second set, Dauphines put more precision into their game and managed to take control and break away to a 13-7 lead.  Changing setters, Maritza found its way to up to 14-15, but never got any closer.  The visiting side regained control, extended its advantage and a kill block by Brazil’s Nikolle Del Rio Aid Correa put the ball on the floor to close the set at 25-17 Dauphines’ way.

In set three Maritza was once again in charge.  At 6-6 was the last time the score was even, after which the home heroines showed more concentration in their performance and mastered an impressive 25-15 win to seal the deal for the next round.  Ivan Petkov’s squad had needed to win two sets and at this point they had already qualified for the eighthfinals.  This gave coach Petkov the opportunity to give all his substitute players the chance to take part in the fourth set.  Inspired by the fans on the stands, these youngsters continued Maritza’s domination throughout the set, which was beautifully closed by Milena Dimova with a superb block for a landslide 25-13.

Maritza’s captain Ana Radicheva was the top scorer of the match, contributing 15 points to the victory.  Radosveta Teneva added 14, while Nikolle Del Rio was Dauphines’ most prolific player with 12.

While the Belgian team will continue its European campaign in the 2016 CEV Volleyball Challenge Cup tournament, Maritza will be waiting until Thursday to find out whether Germany’s Schweriner SC or Czech Republic’s UP Olomouc will be its next opponent in the CEV Cup.

“The first three sets were very competitive and we were quite nervous,” Maritza’s head coach Ivan Petkov admitted.  “Before the match I said that if we did not stand firmly on the ground we would have problems.  It once again became evident that the team from Charleroi is a serious opponent and knows how to play under pressure.  That is why we are now very happy to qualify for the next round of a very strong tournament.  I would like to thank all my players for being on the high level needed for this victory.  We have two domestic games ahead of us to think about and then we will start thinking about our next CEV Cup game.”

“For us it was important to play this game for our own sake, not for the opponent’s,” said Dauphines’ Spanish coach Pascual Saurin.  “Of course, we wanted to win; it did not happen, but, most importantly, this was a game focused on our future.  In all likelihood, our next opponent in the Challenge Cup competition will be a German team.  Germany’s league is stronger than those of Belgium and Bulgaria, which means it will once again be very difficult for us.”

*Stats: Vladimir Karakashkov, volleyballbg.com

Photo: Bonchuk Andonov