Italy, despite injured captain, tops US in men's volleyball
RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) One by one, as best they could, Emanuele Birarelli's teammates made their way over to him for a hug or handshake.
Their captain lay on the sideline with his right ankle elevated and freshly taped. He was injured in the third set of Italy's 28-26, 20-25, 25-23, 25-23 victory over the United States on Tuesday, and his status for Thursday's preliminary match against Mexico is unclear.
Whatever happens, Italy believes in its deep bench. The players assured their 35-year-old leader he need not worry.
''We have to wait the night. It seems swollen. Serious for sure, but we will see how it works,'' coach Gianlorenzo Blengini said. ''I have a team of 12 players.''
Birarelli was part of the Italian group that won a bronze medal four years ago at the London Olympics. On Tuesday, he pumped his right fist from his spot on the floor in one corner of the court at Maracanazinho arena. He motioned his hand back and forth to signal he felt ''so-so.''
The Americans - ranked fifth in the world with eight first-time Olympians - had to contend with a raucous crowd chanting ''Italy!'' They responded from a startling sweep by Canada in their Olympic opener two days earlier with a far more steady performance and improved serving, but it wasn't enough against powerful Italy.
With the score tied at 23 in the fourth set, U.S. star Matt Anderson served into the net to give Italy match point. The Italians, ranked fourth in the world, closed it out to move to 2-0 in Rio. Birarelli stood and limped along, and teammate Simone Buti rushed over to embrace him.
''We are a team,'' Buti said. ''Injury, when it happens, it's important to stay together.''
In London, Italy stunned the top-seeded U.S. in straight sets and eliminated the Americans in the quarterfinals before losing to silver medalist Brazil in the semifinals.
Now, the winless Americans must figure out how to play better in a hurry because Brazil is up next Thursday night. They spent part of the off day Monday having a heart-to-heart talk, discussing what went wrong in the 3-0 loss to Canada on Sunday.
U.S. coach John Speraw went with a youth movement from the start of this Olympic cycle and has known all along there would be growing pains. But to avoid an early exit from Brazil, things must come together now.
The Americans won last year's World Cup and didn't face the pressure of a last-ditch Olympic qualifier that might have prepared them for the task in Rio.
''For them to step out on this court with the balance between the moment and the expectation while being as inexperienced as they are, it's been a really challenging thing for a lot of our young guys,'' Speraw said. ''This is what we signed up for. We knew this four years ago what we were going to do, and here we are. It's a tough journey.''
This is a strange position for U.S. captain and third-time Olympian David Lee, a gold medalist at the 2008 Beijing Games. He has never been in the hole of an Olympic tournament in the group stage. He is trying to support his young teammates.
''I feel like these guys have the weight of the world on their shoulders because they don't want to let down these older players, (Reid) Priddy's last Olympics, my last Olympics,'' Lee said. ''I've never made them feel any pressure like that. I feel like we've created a culture we want these guys to feel free and be themselves, use that youth to your advantage and come out with fire and passion. I feel like they're kind of crushed right now, they're down. But they're getting better.''