17-year-old Paola Egonu had a dramatic effect when she came on for Italy against Japan
Tokyo, Japan, May 22, 2016 - Italy and Japan have both secured their tickets to the 2016 Olympics, after the Europeans beat the host nation 3-2 (23-25, 27-25, 27-25, 21-25, 15-9) in front of an ecstatic crowd in Tokyo.
Italian blocker Cristina Chirichella (15 points, nine blocks) was outstanding for the winners, while Japanese captain Saori Kimura was brilliant with 31 points.
Japanese volleyball fans are very knowledgeable, they knew exactly what their team needed to do against Italy.
It was a situation requiring a captain to stand up, and both did. Saori Kimura was dynamic early in helping her team establish an early lead, and Antonella Del Core worked hard to bring her Italian team back into the contest.
Through Kimura, Yuki Ishii and Miyu Nagaoka Japan pushed out to an 18-13 lead, before Italy’s Martina Guiggi served the visitors into the lead at 19-18.
The remainder of the set was a pulsating affair, ended by Cristina Chirichella serving into the net.
Oh to have a bench player like Paola Egonu at your disposal. Italian coach Marco Bonitta is the fortunate coach to have 17-year-old Egonu at has disposal, and he used her perfectly to close out the second set.
Italy had been in control ever since the scores were locked at 7-all, but towards the end of the set, when Italy started to rally and the home crowd found its ample voice, Bonitta swung 190cm Egonu into action.
The results came straight away. Her first action was a ferocious spike; then came another, and another. The Japanese did all they could to curtail her power, but Italy levelled 27-25.
Del Core with 11 points was leading the way for Italy, while Kimura had 13 points for Japan. Erika Araki had seven points, four of them from stonewall blocks at the net.
The third set was incredible for so many reasons. Two outstanding individual performances, a gripping and incredibly high standard contest, and at the end Italy had secured its ticket to Rio.
Firstly, Japan should not have lost the set. It led 16-11, and was in complete control. Captain Kimura was playing the game of her life, and Italy looked to be imploding.
But Cristina Chirichella, the best blocker of the competition, shut down the Japanese attack, Egonu continued to torment the Japanese diggers, and Japan panicked.
The final points of the set were breathtaking. The capacity crowd could not believe their team had thrown away a seemingly insurmountable lead to go down 27-25.
There was incredible excitement around the stadium at the end of the fourth set, not just because Japan held on 25-21 to level the match 2-2, but mostly because the result meant the home team would take the final spot on offer for Rio 2016.
The guaranteed point from winning two sets means Thailand’s brave challenge was over.
Kimura continued to dominate for Japan, ably assisted by Opposite Miyu Nagaoka, who won points when they were needed, while Chirichella, Del Core and Egonu were fighting hard for Italy.
With both teams safely off to Rio, the sting went out of the final set. Italy got its groove back after it went missing during the fourth set, and Japan played like one would expect after the emotional relief of securing a spot at their 12th Olympic Games.
Japan took the final set 15-9, not that anyone seemed to notice. Both teams were too busy celebrating booking tickets to Brazil. Fittingly the final point came from a Chirichella block.