Bulgaria will face Poland in the play-off stage of the European men’s volleyball championship on September 24, with a spot in the quarter-final against Germany at stake.
The group stage produced a fair share of upsets, but that is not uncommon at volleyball’s major tournaments, where top-ranked teams will routinely drop a match in the preliminary stage if that secures an easier opponent down the line.
In Bulgaria’s case, such jockeying for position has not always resulted in the most favourable match-up, and certainly not this time, as it will face the continent’s second-ranked team (Bulgaria was ranked third at the end of March).
Like all other group favourites, Poland dropped some points on the way to qualifying second behind France in their pool – Russia was runner-up in the group it shared with Bulgaria (behind Germany), Italy finished behind Belgium (ranked 17th in Europe) and defending champions Serbia came second to Finland.
Ironically, this means that the four favourites will still play the same semi-final match-ups (provided they reach that stage) they would have if they all won their qualifying pools, but now they have an additional play-off match to play (group winners proceed straight into the quarter-finals, getting a first-round bye).
Bulgaria has enjoyed a measure of recent success against Poland – after losing last year’s World League semi-final to Poland, Bulgaria went on to win their group stage match at the London Olympics and then again their two matches in the preliminary stage of the World League this year.
Its task, however, will be made more difficult by a hostile crowd. Poland, alongside Denmark, is the co-host of this year’s tournament and the match is to be played in Gdansk.