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By the time the 2018-19 CEV Champions League women’s Super Final rolls around on May 18, there will be absolutely nothing left unknown between the finalists Imoco Volley Conegliano and Igor Gorgonzola Novara.
Both teams compete in Italy’s Serie A league, and as the top two teams in the league, in addition to meeting twice in the regular season, they’ve also faced off in the Super Cup, the Coppa Italia, and in the league’s championship series.
Just a week ago, Imoco secured the Serie A1 title, winning the best-of-five championship series in three straight matches. However, after dominant 3-0 victories in the first two legs, Imoco required five sets to win the third match in the series.
The 2019 Super Final marks the third time in history two Italian women’s teams have played each other for Europe’s top prize; however, neither Imoco nor Novara has ever won a Champions League title.
Here’s everything you need to know about the Champions League SuperFinal taking place on May 18 between Imoco and Novara.
Perhaps the biggest star from either team is Novara’s 20-year-old Paola Egonu. The Italian opposite ranks fourth among all players in Champions League with 183 points. She even secured the golden set win over VakifBank Istanbul in the Champions League semifinals with an ace. In last summer’s World Championships, Egonu finished as the top scorer with 324 points, and will no doubt play a major role for Italy in this summer’s Volleyball Nation’s League, World Cup, and Olympic qualification tournaments.
In total, six athletes who are competing in the Super Finals appear on Italy’s 25-player preliminary VNL roster: Egonu and middle Cristina Chirichella from Novara and outside Miriam Sylla, libero Monica De Gennaro, and middles Raphaela Folie and Anna Danesi from Imoco.
And of course, plenty of players from other countries will also go on to represent their homeland in the upcoming VNL tournament, including USA’s Lauren Carlini and Michelle Bartsch-Hackley for Novara and Karsta Lowe and Kim Hill for Imoco.
Polish setter Joanna Wolosz quarterbacks the lethal Imoco offense, ranking as the top setter in Champions League with an efficiency of 46.99 percent.
“I’ve never seen anyone run an offense like [Wolosz],” Novara setter Lauren Carlini said in a phone interview ahead of the Italian league finals series. “She’s so athletic. She hides it super well—she’s super neutral when she sets, so it’s hard to defend against her.”
Middles Danesi and Robin de Kruijf of the Netherlands national team combine to make Imoco one of the best blocking teams in Europe, tallying 106 total blocks throughout the 2018-19 Champions League competition, good for third overall behind Allianz Stuttgart and VakifBank.
History & Seasons to Date
Imoco has only made it to the Champions League final one other time, in 2016-17, and Imoco lost that matchup in straight sets to Turkey’s VakifBank Istanbul. This year, the team’s appearance in the Super Final was anything but guaranteed.
Imoco lost two matches in the group stage, then got swept by Eczacibasi Vitra Istanbul in the first leg of the quarterfinals and required a golden set win to advance. In the semifinals, however, Imoco seemed to finally hit its stride, sweeping Fenerbahce Opet Istanbul in both home and away legs.
“Two times I already thought we were out of Champions League,” middle blocker Robin De Kruijf said in an interview with CEV. “Maybe it makes it even more special. We worked very hard, we gave everything, we came back, and it’s just even more motivation to get a reward for what we worked for.”
At home in the Italian League, Imoco topped the table with a 20-4 record, a full nine points ahead of No. 2 Novara before steamrolling through the competition in the playoffs to win its second Serie A1 title in a row and third overall.
Novara also had a good season domestically, boasting a 17-7 record as well as a victory over Imoco in the final of the Coppa Italia. In Champions League, the squad didn’t drop a set through all of pool play and then won both matches over Allianz Stuttgart of Germany in the quarters.
The Italian squad really impressed in the semifinals, however, traveling to Istanbul and sweeping reigning Champions League gold medalist VakifBank in its own gym. VakifBank came back to win in four in the second leg, but Novara advanced with a come-from-behind win in the golden set.
Novara has never competed in the Champions League final. In fact, the team’s previous best finish was a fifth place a year ago.
These are two teams with tons of history. The domestic series alone encompasses 25 matches, with Imoco holding a 16-9 lead in the rivalry, and the Super Final will mark the fourth time the teams have played in just three weeks and the eighth time in the 2018-19 season overall.
Last year, they went head-to-head in the Italian league final series, which Imoco won in four matches, but Novara won the Super Cup and Italian Cup finals in the 2017-18 season.
“We know each other really well, which means the level of the games will be really high,” Novara outside hitter Celeste Plak said in an interview with the CEV.
“In finals, it’s not really, in my opinion, about, of course it’s about who is the best volleyball-playing team, but also who is mentally strongest and wants to win the most, and we want to win a lot,” Plak continued.
“A big part of it is going to being mentally ready and not falling into the lull of, ‘ugh, we’re playing them for the fourth time,’” Carlini said. “Just coming in with a clear mindset and being ready to compete right out of the gates.”