Tokyo, Japan, May 18, 2016 - Put simply, this was volleyball at its very best.
A gripping five-set thriller and a home team victory out of nowhere, one of the most incredible comebacks amid drama not even Steven Spielberg would dare imagine.
Japan beat Thailand 3-2 (20-25, 25-23, 23-25, 25-23, 15-13) in a pulsating match lasting nearly three hours.
Thailand knew it’s chances of qualifying hinged on tonight’s match, and in the first set they played accordingly.
They out-jousted, out set, out received and out played the home team from the first point, opening up an early 5-1 lead, and then refusing to buckle when Japan kept climbing back into the set.
At 14-15 Japan took the lead briefly, but Thailand fought back to turn 15-16 into 18-16, and then 21-18, 24-19 and eventually 25-20.
The digging of Thailand, led by Libero Piyanut Pannoy, was a sight to behold, with wave after wave of Japanese attacks blunted.
Setter Nootsara Tomkom was replaced midway through the set, but Pornpun Guedpard proved she is more than a useful replacement for the highly rated Nootsara.
And Japan started making errors, and lots of them. By the end of the first set the error count was 11 to five.
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The second set was gripping, tense, and incredibly entertaining. It had everything – brilliant rallies (the rally for the 28th point of the set was extraordinary), incredible individual performances, even high drama when the new technology seemed to leave everyone nonplussed!
Both teams threw everything at the set, trying to break their opposition in a match that could ultimately decide who goes to the Olympics.
Japanese coach Masayoshi Manabe went for the most experienced team he could possibly muster, including 2012 Olympic star Saori Sakoda (10 points to the end of the second set).
Thailand’s Radchatagriengkai put his neck on the line, throwing 16-year-old Chatchu-On Moksri into the match at a crucial stage, and persisting with second setter, Guedpard.
Japan eventually took the set 25-23, setting the scene for a gripping finale.
If the second set was classic volleyball, the third set took the pressure up a notch. Thailand bounced out to take a 4-0 lead, and then 10-6, before Japan climbed back to 11-9 off the back of some breathtaking work from Sakoda and Yuki Ishii.
With another capacity crowd mostly roaring on the home team (there was a solid pocket of very vocal Thai supporters in the crowd) Thailand coach Radchatagriengkai held his nerve, persevered with 16-year-old Moksri, and his judgment was rewarded when his team blew the lead back out to 17-12.
But the Japanese were not done with, and incredibly fought their way back to 18-19, and then 20-all, before the visitors pulled away to take the set 25-23.
Captain Pleumjit Thinkaow was inspirational for Thailand, leading the points tally with 16, including three blocks and a service ace, while Sakoda could boast identical personal statistics for Japan.
Japan’s problem after three sets, besides being behind on the scoreboard, was they weren’t scoring enough points off their serve. They hadn’t registered a single service ace, while Thailand had six.
Could it get any more pulsating? Emphatically, yes. Japan threw everything at their Thai opponents early in the fourth, opened up an 8-4 lead, and then 14-10 before the gripping climax.
Thailand turned a 17-19 deficit into a 21-19 lead, Japan scraped back to 21-all, and when Sakoda spiked to close the set out 25-23 the roar from the crowd threatened to blow the roof of the Metropolitan Gymnasium.
The match was off to a fifth set, the first five setter of the week, and befitting of the epic duel that had been unfolding for more than two hours.
The fifth set, by any measure, was one of the most incredible sets of volleyball most fans will ever see.
Thailand had the match, and possibly a ticket to Rio, wrapped up at 9-3. But what unfolded next was one of the most amazing self-destructions in sport.
With all the momentum, the Thai team and their coaching bench somehow managed to concoct a way to lose the unlosable set.
The ill-discipline brought with it a heavy price for Thailand; the first red card came when they were leading 12-7. But instead of concentrating on sealing the game, the team became distracted and continued to argue with officials.
The second red card was inevitable; it came when Thailand was trailing 12-13, and virtually gifted the match to Japan.
For the hosts, Saori Sakoda was incredible all night, finishing with a game-high 24 points, while Thailand captain Pleumjit Thinkaow led the way for the visitors with 21 points.
The tears the Thai players cried as they left the court told the story; the chance to go to their very first Olympics had been dealt a severe blow.