In the showdown between the reigning world champion and the Olympic champion, Croatia came from behind to beat arch-rival Serbia in front of 2,000 enthusiastic fans in Rijeka. The hosts can play for the title with Spain in the men’s Europa Cup Super Final, while Serbia faces Italy in the bronze medal game.
Whenever Croatia and Serbia play, all eyes are set on the pool and this game of the two giants has become another epic chapter in history. Serbia got the better start, and it was a way better start indeed since they managed to hold the home side on a single goal for two periods while taking a 4-1 lead. But the Croats showed the character of a world champion team as they got back to life in the third, began to make their 6 on 5s and found the ways to launch counters.
The Serbs were still 5-4 up before the last period but two fine goals in 83 seconds put the hosts ahead for the first time and much to the joy of the 2,000 spectators filling every corner of the place. Though the Serbs equalized twice, Croatia didn’t let it go: they were 0 for 5 in the first half in man-ups, they made 3 out of 7 in the second while the Serbs could score only three goals in the entire second half.
For this, Croatian goalie Marko Bijač deserved all praises as he came up with a performance once more which had also made him the best European player for 2017 and the recipient of the LEN Award. The trophy was presented him before the game by LEN President Paolo Barelli.
Croatia could earn back-to-back wins against their arch-rivals as they could beat the Serbs again after their magnificent World Championships semi-final win in Budapest. It means they will play with Spain for the title and the €20,000 top prize while Serbia should face Italy for the bronze.
Italy earned that opportunity by beating Greece with a convincing performance. They rushed to a 4-1 lead and never looked back, clinching the second place in Group A. Hungary moved to the third spot here as they managed to restore some pride by downing Spain 13-7 and offering some typical Magyar spectacle for those remaining on the stands (the Spaniards finished atop anyway). The Hungarians will go for the 5th place with Montenegro – the latter one had an easy ride against France and earned its first win here.
Two goals in 23 seconds boosted Italy’s early surge to go 3-1 up in the first period while the Greeks missed three man-ups. The third one was especially painful as Francesco di Fulvio scored from the ensuing counter with 2 seconds remaining and that gave Italy a 4-1 lead.
The second was somewhat more balanced, Georgios Dervisis netted two for Greece but a double also arrived from Italy’s Argentina-born leftie Gonzalo Echenique, both of his action goals were real beauties. Though Greece could come a bit closer early in the third after Ioannis Fountoulis collected a rebound among adventurous circumstances for 6-4 but the Settebello replied from a 6 on 5 to reset the three-goal gap. Greece managed to kill four Italian 6 on 5s in the rest of the period but didn’t have enough energy to set up fine chances in offence and also missed a man-up. That turned out to be crucial as Francesco di Fulvio could rush away after getting the ball in the back and finished his one-on-one for 8-4.
The trend didn’t change in the final eight minutes as Italy managed to put away two man-ups, Guillermo Molina’s backhanded shot after a rebound was one of the most spectacular goals in the tournament. Though the Greeks found the way to finish their man-ups at this stage, it didn’t bring them closer and finished the prelims with a draw and two defeats, while Italy secured a chance to play for the bronze medal on Sunday.
Alessandro Campagna, the head coach of Italy commented:
“In the first period we played very good. Good speed, good rhythm, counterattacks, great defense. The second period was also somewhat satisfying but after that we didn’t play really well our 6 on 5s. Of course, the players wanted to take care of the result, to keep the lead so they didn’t rush that much. Now we can play for the bronze medal with another strong team, and this is why this tournament is great. It helps a lot for me, as a coach, as I can see my players in four very strong matches, how they respond in different situations, assess their physical conditions and of course the mistakes are also highlighted against quality opponents. It’s better to discover them now since the Champions League ends in early June and we will have only five weeks to prepare for the European Championships.”
On the other side Theodoros Vlachos, the head coach of Greece said:
“True, this game was somewhat similar to the one we played yesterday. I hoped that my players would react in a better way after the loss, but Italy’s strong defense didn’t leave them too much opportunities. We have to learn from these lessons. I know my players better than anyone else. Last year they were heroes. This year, in this tournament they are not playing like heroes, just as ordinary players. I know the reasons but this is not the place to talk about them. For sure, we have to work a lot to correct the mistakes and to reach a level where we deserve much better results than we achieved here.”
A nice lob and a penalty gave France what they never had before in this tournament: the lead in hand. It happened in the first quarter as the French learnt the lesson from the opening day when Croatia rolled over them in eight minutes. On the second day they withstood the pressure against the Serbs at least in the first half while now they could even go ahead while playing with Montenegro.
Though this charming period didn’t last long as the favorite side netted two 6 on 5s in quick succession and added one more early in the second for 2-4. However, the Montenegrins didn’t gear up in the coming minutes and they were not dominating the game that much as did the Croats and the Serbs on the previous days. A nicely played man-up halved the gap soon and the French had to possessions to equalize though couldn’t impose much threat in these attacks. Though Montenegro also netted one from a 6 on 5 – finished with a lob, something rare in man-ups – but the French could also bury their extra with 13 seconds to go, so the score at halftime looked fine from their angle (4-5).
Montenegro tightened up in defense and lifted the level of focus in front as well and soon it became visible on the scoreboard. After 5-6 they scored three connecting goals in 2:38 minutes to go 5-9 and move out from the ‘danger zone’. They didn’t go on scoring, though, and the French could narrow the distance despite missing a penalty. Just before the end Saša Mišić netted a brilliant goal from the center to end the match in a positive manner for Montenegro.
Nenad Vukanić, the head coach of France commented:
“We are still very far from the best teams of the world, even if this game looked a bit tighter. Perhaps it was easier after Serbia and Croatia, and perhaps this wasn’t the best Montenegrin team, still, we shouldn’t lie to ourselves, we have to see the differences between us and the top-level sides. There is no too much time until the European Championships to make miracles but we’ll work every day to reach the level of the best ones in the future.”
The head coach of Montenegro, Vladimir Gojković, said:
“I don’t know who will play tomorrow, it’s too much to play four games with the best teams in four days… The players are dead at this part of the season, so it’s really not easy. Of course, it’s a chance to see the mistakes and to correct them, still, it’s a very demanding tournament.”
The biggest match of the day – and perhaps of the whole tournament – made waves in Rijeka, temporary tribunes had to be added around the pool and all seats were filled by the beginning, some 2,000 people gathered to see which team would make the final.
Filip Filipović started the scoring with a fine blast from a counter, the Croats missed their first 6 on 5 but also killed the Serbs’ man-ups, two in a row. Then the other great leftie, Maro Joković, also netted one from a counter to level the score. However, the Serbs were on target from their next two 6 on 5s, the first was a great shot from Filipović, the second was a lucky push from Duško
Pijetlović after a rebound. At the other end the hosts struggled in their extras, though credits should be given to their rivals who did a great job in defense, reserving the two-goal lead until the break (3-1).
Another 6 on 5 gone for the Croats at the beginning of the second and even if the Serbs also missed one, they could score in the next, Dušan Mandić did the damage. And the scoreless phase for the hosts didn’t tend to end soon, they couldn’t make another man-up (stood 0 for 5 at this stage, the Serbs were 3 for 7), when the buzzer went, 12:18 minutes had gone without a Croatian goal while the visitors led 4-1.
After the middle break a different team arrived back to the pool from the home side: this time luck took their side when Loren Fatović’s shot slipped in under the hand of Gojko Pijetlović, then Ante Vukičević netted a two on one counter to take the fans on their feet. Marko Bijač’s save in a man-down further fueled the enthusiasm of the locals and soon the Croats earned a 6 on 5 to go even but they played it quite poorly after a time-out. The Serbs didn’t do them a favor to commit the same mistake and Duško Pijetlović put the ball away from their man-up. It was a crucial part of the game, instead of 4-4 it stood 5-3 and Croatia couldn’t find the hole on the Serbian wall on the next occasion playing in 6 on 5. They made the third, though, for 5-4 with 46 seconds before the last break and this time the Serbs made a miss in extra in the last moments.
And that hit back as the Croats scored in their first possession, Luka Lončar pulled the ball in from close range for 5-5 and they rolled on soon: despite a missed man-up, Ante Vukičević sent the ball home from a counter while the Serbian defenders messed up the marking. As usual, Filipović came to save the nation, his trademark 5m shot found the back of the net for 6-6 and Gojko Pijeltović came up with a big save in the next man-down.
The game heated up, the Serbs had two man-ups but couldn’t make either, first the post saved the Croats, then Bijač, what’s more, Fatović managed to score from the ensuing counter. With 2:17 go the hosts led again 7-6, but the Serbs kept their nerves and netted the next 6 on 5 for 7-7. Still, this score favored the hosts because of their better goal-difference, however, they went further as they managed to bury another man-up for 8-7 with 1:24 remaining. The Serbs’ goal was disallowed because of the 2m rule violation with 1:00 on the clock, so it was over – after the World Championships’ semi-final the Croats managed to beat their arch-rival once more and can go for the gold with Spain on Sunday.
After the game, we talked to Loren Fatović:
“In first two quarters they controlled the game because we made some mistakes, even though we reminded ourselves not to do them. And them being a really good team, they used it against us. But at the half-time, we pulled ourselves together and started scoring the goals we failed to score in the beginning. We finally overtook the situation in the final quarter. In the end, I think we won because we deserved to. Overall, we are more than just a team playing water polo. And that’s what helps us in winning. Even though today I was selected as an individual, I’m sure that tomorrow there will be someone else from the team. We always have to remember that we’re a team and we play as one.”
The head coach of Croatia, Ivica Tucak, said:
“This is always a historical match and it was a very great match again. I think in the first half my players were a bit nervous, while the defense was more or less OK, we committed mistakes in front. The second half was much better, we played on the expected level and could turn the score. It was really hard as we had one player less as we missed our captain Andro Bušlje due to suspension but we managed to overcome that. However, we must forget this win, the previous ones against France and Montenegro and be ready mentally for Sunday. It’s going to be another final in two days.”
Dejan Savić, the head coach of Serbia commented:
“Congratulations to Croatia, they played well and won because they had to win.”
The Hungarians were out to restore some pride after a draw against Greece and a bad loss to Italy. Their task looked a bit easier due to the fact that Spain had already secured the top spot in the group so had nothing to lose or win in this encounter.
The different approach was visible right from the beginning, Marton Vamos netted a fine 5m shot in the first possession and this was followed by a double by Krisztian Manhercz while the Spanish lacked their usual fire in front so Hungary led 3-0 after eight minutes.
A couple of minutes later the Magyars were 6-1 up already but before it would have turned into a demolishing, the Spaniards could find a brighter spell and netted three connecting goals to bring back the tension to the match. The cooler came from Krisztian Bedo who scored a fantastic goal from the centre, beating the defender and the goalie alike (7-4).
Though Spain came closer from a nicely carved 6 on 5, but the Magyars replied with their best spell in the tourney, scoring four goals in a row – Szilard Jansik made a hat-trick in 2:30 minutes –, each of them being worthy of their rich traditions. Then, as a bonus, Bence Batori blasted one from 12m for a 12-5 lead, to cause some noise on the stands. The game was done, though, the fourth period went down amidst calmness as the Spaniards’ brains were already focused on the final perhaps.
Tamas Marcz, the head coach of Hungary said:
“I can be happy with the performance of my team, I think today we showed something positive we can take on with us for the future. In the morning practice we put special emphasis on the 6 on 5s and I saw some positive reaction from my players in this match. We have to appreciate all wins in this field and this one gives us the opportunity to play another strong match tomorrow, against Montenegro. I don’t care of the ranks we achieve here, it’s more important to see the team progressing. I think this young team can cause some pleasant surprise on the long run.”
And the head coach of Spain, David Martin, commented:
“Even if we secured the first place after two rounds, I would have liked to see more composure from my team. But we began without intensity, without focus and that led to go 3-0 and 6-1 down. Yes, perhaps our mind was already on the Sunday final against Croatia – there we have to return to our previous form. It’s going to be tough but I hope we can play a good match with the world champions.”
For places 7-8 France
For places 5-6 Hungary
Bronze medal match Serbia
Europa Cup Final Spain