TJ Defalco against Ezequiel Palacios at the net

USA got the upper hand in a spectacular five-set match with Argentina to open the last competition day of the men’s Volleyball Nations League 2022 Preliminary Phase. Their outside hitter TJ Defalco was on fire producing 28 points, including three blocks, towards their narrow 3-2 (29-27, 22-25, 20-25, 25-13, 17-15) victory to keep them undefeated this week’s four games in Osaka and put them on top of the current standings on a 10-2 win-loss record and 27 points.

Led by their outside Luciano Palonsky with 24 points, Argentina played a great game, but the loss put an end to their hopes of making the Finals from July 20 to 24 in Bologna. They finished their VNL campaign on 5-7 and 18 points and are currently ninth, just below the cut-off line. So the last remaining vacancy in the Finals will be decided between the Netherlands and Slovenia as they play their last games later on Sunday.

· Watch all VNL 2022 matches live on Volleyball TV.

TJ Defalco’s top plays against Argentina

In a very competitive first set, the lead went back and forth, but only once the gap exceeded two points, at 9-6 Argentina’s way. The South Americans had the edge in the first half of the set. The North Americans had a slight advantage in the second, with Defalco contributing as many as nine points. The set was pushed deep into overtime as Argentina denied the first four US set points. On the fifth one, a successful block by captain David Smith put an end to the set at 29-27 USA’s way.

Argentina stepped up their offensive efforts in the second set. A series of their points in a row – a pipe shot by Ezequiel Palacios, a block-out hit by Luciano Vicentin and a block by Joaquin Gallego – gave them a four-point lead at 11-7. USA battled on, but all they could to do was get back to within one. An ace by star playmaker and captain Luciano De Cecco, followed by a pulverising cross-court kill by Palonsky, put Argentina at a quintuple set point, 24-19. The North Americans denied them the first three opportunities to close the set, before Palacios finally put it away for 25-22 to level the match.

Luciano Palonsky’s top plays against USA

Three successful swings in a row by Palacios put Argentina at a 9-6 lead in set three. USA fought back to reset the balance at 16-16 after two back-to-back monster blocks by middle Mitchell Stahl. However, that balance was short-lived. The South Americans went on a five-point run, including three kills by Palonsky, to break away again with a 22-17 advantage and practically pre-decided the set. It was Palonsky again who scored his seventh point in the set with an elegant tip for 25-20.

A great hit by Smith through the middle, followed by a setter Micah Christenson monster block and an attacking error by the opponents, gave USA a 12-8 edge in the fourth set. Riding the momentum, the North Americans owned the net and dominated the rest of the set on the way to a 25-13 blowout, closed off by Smith with another successful swing through the middle.

The tie-breaker offered a fierce battle for every point. First, Argentina managed to gain a two-point lead. Then, USA took control to edge ahead by two points in the money time, but it was all level at 13-13. The South Americans handed their opponents the first two match points with mistaken serves, but managed to deny them. Defalco delivered the third one with a kill for 16-15 and then he was part of a three-men block, in which Christenson put the ball on the floor for the 17-15 match winner.

“We were expecting a good game and a fight from the beginning, but we weren’t expecting something like that. I am happy that everyone who is here witnessed a good fight,” Defalco said after the match. “I think this match was important because it was our next match and that made it the most important match for us. We don’t look any further or anything in the back. We always look at the match in front of us. We are really happy to win four in four; it was a team effort all the way around for this week and I’m just happy for the team. The big word now is REST!”

The last competition day of the VNL 2022 first stage continues with two more games in Osaka, Australia v France and Brazil v Japan. The action will then move to Gdansk, where China and Serbia will open Sunday’s programme, followed by matches between Italy and the Netherlands and between Poland and Slovenia.