The majority of the top men’s volleyball players in the world compete for professional teams in Europe, and on May 18, Cucine Lube Civitanova of Italy’s Serie A and Zenit Kazan of Russia’s Superleague will meet in the Super Final of the 2018-19 CEV Volleyball Champions League to determine the top team on the continent.
Here’s everything you need to know about these two teams heading into the ultimate showdown.
Although Lube is based in Civitanova Marche, Italy, on the coast of the Adriatic Sea, only two of its usual starters compete for the Italian national team—libero Fabio Balaso and Juantorena Osmany, an outside hitter who was born in Cuba and played for the Cuban national team until 2006. Juantorena played a big role in Italy’s silver medal at the Rio Olympics, scoring 14 points in the defeat of the USA in the semifinals.
Two other Lube players are also former Cuban national teamers who now compete for other countries. Outside hitter Yoandy Leal Hidalgo defected from Cuba in 2010 and received Brazilian citizenship in 2015. Middle blocker Robertlandy Simón Aties played for his native Cuba until defecting in 2010. In September 2018, the Bulgarian Federation said they had initiated the process of getting Simón Bulgarian citizenship.
Setter Bruno Mossa de Rezende has quarterbacked Brazil to three Olympic medals—silver in 2008 and 2012 and gold in 2016. The son of former Brazil men’s national team head coach Bernardinho and two-time Olympian Vera Mossa joined the Brazilian senior national team in 2007 when he was just 20 years old.
Eastern Europeans Tsvetan Sokolov of Bulgaria and Dragan Stankovic of Serbia round out the intimidating starting lineup.
Zenit Kazan’s offense features a who’s who of the world’s top pin hitters: Matt Anderson from Team USA, Earvin Ngapeth from France, and Russia’s Maxim Mikhailov, a gold medalist at the 2012 Olympics. All three rank in the top 20 scorers in Champions League.
Setter Alexander Butko was named best setter of the 2017-18 Champions League and has been Zenit Kazan’s setter since 2015-16. The Russian national teamer was also a member of that Olympic gold-medal winning team in 2012 and saw occasional playing time in the 2018 World Championships, although 23-year-old setter Dmitry Volkov seems to have staked claim to the starting spot.
Libero Alexey Verbov is the current starting libero for the Russia national team. Middles Artem Volvich (7’0”) and Alexey Samoylenko (6’9”), both also Russian, combine to make Kazan a ferocious blocking team.
This game will be especially significant for Anderson, who recently signed with Italy’s Azimut Leo Shoes Modena for the 2019-20 season after eight years with Zenit Kazan.
History & Seasons to Date
Zenit Kazan has won the last four CEV Champions League tournaments in a row and has claimed six European titles in total. In 2017, the Russian squad also won the FIVB Club World Championships after finishing runner-up the two seasons prior.
Dominant at home in the Russia’s Superleague, Kazan has won 10 of the last 12 league titles. This year, however, despite going 25-1 in the regular season, Kazan couldn’t bring home the Russian championship, losing to Kuzbass Kemerovo in the final to miss out on the national title for the first time in six years.
In Champions League, Kazan went undefeated in pool play, but then required a golden set to advance in the quarterfinals after splitting a pair of five-set matches with Trefl Gdansk of Poland’s PlusLiga. The semifinal round saw Kazan send Italy’s Sir Safety Conad Perugia (an Team USA’s Aaron Russell) packing with two straight victories.
This season, Lube finished third in the Serie A regular season standings with a 23-3 record, just one point behind No. 2 Trentino and No. 1 Perugia, but the squad advanced all the way to the league championship series thanks to victories over Verona in the quarters and Trentino in the semifinals. As of this writing, Lube and Perugia were locked in a battle for the title, with each team having won two matches in the series.
In its history, Lube has won a gold medal at Champions League just once, in 2002, but the squad has medaled in each of the last three seasons, claiming silver last year and bronze in 2017 and 2016.
The two-time Club World Championships silver medalists (2017 and 2018) have won four Italian league titles, five Italian Cups, and three Italian SuperCups (American fans will be forgiven for having no idea the difference between those three competitions).
The 2018-19 Champions League competition saw Lube go undefeated in pool play, earning the sweep in all but two matches, and then win both quarterfinal legs over Dinamo Moscow. The semifinals showcased the most dominant Lube yet, as the team advanced with two sweeps over PGE Skra Belchatow.
Head to Head
The 2018-19 Champions League Super Final serves as a rematch of last year’s final, which Kazan hosted and won in five incredibly close sets (29-27, 18-25, 23-25, 25-23, 17-15).
Sokolov led Lube with 29 total points in the 2017-18 final, but Wilfredo Leon, who is now a member of Sir Sicoma Conad Perugia but was then playing for Kazan, topped all players with 32 points. The 2017-18 Lube squad also featured Americans Taylor Sander and Micah Christenson, who have since transferred to different teams.
Kazan and Lube also met in the final of the 2017 FIVB Club World Championships, with Kazan claiming the title in straight sets.