RIESA, Germany – Led by reigning titleholder Cuba, 12 teams, including three former world champions, geared up yesterday for the second round of the women’s Volleyball World Championships, which will showcase a repeat of the Sydney Olympic final. Cuba, Russia and China are three of the four world champions since 1952 remaining after three-time gold medalist Japan was forced to return home following its fourth-place finish in Group A. Russia, or the former Soviet Union, won in 1952, 1956, 1960, 1970, and 1990, Cuba lifted the title in 1978, 1994 and 1998, while China triumphed in 1982 and 1986. Japan was world champion in 1962, 1967 and 1974. In an Olympic rematch Sunday, world-ranking leader Russia will attempt to avenge its bitter loss to gold medalist Cuba in Group E. The Russians, with the spectacular skills of giant attackers Elena Godina, Ekaterina Gamova and Elizaveta Tichtchenko, remain one of the title favorites after winning the World Grand Prix and the Montreux Volley Masters this summer. Cuba, which suffered a troubling opening match upset to South Korea but rallied sufficiently to finish second in Group B, is seeking its third consecutive world title. The two countries will also play Italy, which lost the European Championship title to Russia last year. Coach Marco Bonitta’s team has proven itself a strong medal contender at the championships, however, finishing the preliminary round as just one of three undefeated teams along with South Korea and the United States. The group also includes Greece, the only newcomer to reach the second round after winning four of its five Group D matches. «We have already rewritten the history books, now we have nothing to lose,» said Greece’s head coach, Dimitrios Floros. «Having Italy, Cuba and Russia in the next round, we have to face very strong opponents. We are not at their level, but we will do our best.» In Group F play in Stuttgart, China, already in preparation for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, will meet Puerto Rico, the graceful and lightning-quick South Koreans, and dangerous outsiders Bulgaria – the European bronze medalists last year. The US, which had a remarkable 2001 season, claiming both the World Grand Prix and the Norceca Continental Championship, remains in Riesa along with world-class Brazil, host Germany, the surprise bronze medalist at this year’s World Grand Prix, as well as the emerging young Dutch team in Group G. «We’re happy to stay here in Riesa as the first of our preliminary round group,» said American Danielle Scott. «We’re settled here and know our way around so that we can fully concentrate on the upcoming matches.» The Americans will be rejoined by their star libero Stacy Sykora, sidelined for two matches after smashing her head during a dive in her team’s 3-0 victory over the Dominican Republic. Though FIVB rules state teams can only replace their libero for one match at the tournament, the US received special permission from the ruling body’s Control Committee allowing Sykora to return to her position for the second round. «I’m feeling much better,» Sykora said. «And as long as I can play, I’m happy.» «Now we just have to go into the next round and focus on what we have to do. We’ve played all the teams here before so we know what to expect. All we can do is focus on our side, stay totally concentrated on what we have to do, on our game.» Teams had two rest days on Wednesday and yesterday to allow them to travel to their second-round venues. Play was scheduled to resume today.