Penalties were in the spotlight in the two crucial quarterfinals in the women’s tournament at the European Water Polo Championships in Barcelona. Greece overcame Russia in a shootout and returns to the semis after 2012, while Hungary’s goalie stopped one against Italy in the dying seconds to secure the title-holders’ spot in the SF. Italy didn’t make the top four at the women’s Europeans for the first time in history. 2014 champion Spain and 2016 runner-up Netherlands enjoyed an easy cruising to the semis while beating France and Germany respectively.
Apart from Spain’s four-goal win on an opening day against Hungary, the matches of the top six teams were all decided by a single goal in the prelims (if it wasn’t a tie) – and the trend continued in the quarters.
Greece needed 11:06 minutes to get on the scoreboard but once they scored their first – Russia could gain a 0-1 lead in this phase –, they started rolling and deep into the third they were 4-1 up. However, Russia responded the same way, after a drought lasting 14:54 minutes they netted four unanswered goals to take over the lead once more at 5-4, with 3:57 to go.
But the Greeks also found their way back, in 55 seconds Nikoleta Eleftheriadou converted a man-up then sent a magnificent lob to the Russian net (this was her third) and led 6-5 with 1:38 from time. Russia went all-in, earned back-to-back 6 on 5s and finally, Olga Gorbunova equalized with 27 seconds remaining.
The decision was left to the penalties: the shootout earned the Russians the Olympic berth two years ago, apparently against Greece, and the Olympic bronze against Hungary – but this time the Greeks prevailed. Alena Sherzantova hit the post in the second round, it was the only miss but it meant that the Russians will miss the semis once more after 2016, while the Greeks return to the top flight after 2012.
The next QF was just as thrilling and as hotly contested as any game between Italy and Hungary. It was a match of twists and turns, the results of the quarters show something from the story: 3-1, 1-4, 4-1, 1-4 – but the reality was even more exciting. The first big turn came in the second period when Hungary netted three straight goals to go 4-5 up after being 4-2 down and they added a fine action goal from their first possession in the third to lead 4-6.
The next twist arrived soon: Italy made the most of their man-ups while Rita Keszthelyi missed a penalty at 7-6 and Arianna Garibotti netted her fourth goal to give Italy an 8-6 lead before the last break.
After a quick exchange of goals, Italy was still 9-7 ahead and few would have guessed that they couldn’t score any more in the remaining 5:30 minutes. Dorottya Szilagyi stepped up for the Magyars, her two blasts brought the sides to even with 2:03 to go.
The Hungarians killed an Italian man-up, then Rita Keszthelyi showed the best quality of a true leader, leaving behind the demons of the missed penalty she drove herself towards the goal, managed to collect a lengthy ball, and sent it home with an incredible back-handed shot among three defenders, to complete a 0-3 Hungarian rush with 29 seconds remaining.
But there was one more twist in the story: just ten seconds on, Italy earned a penalty. Their best shooter, LEN Award winner Roberta Bianconi took the ball but Edina Gangl guessed the side right in the goal, caught the ball and sent the Magyars into their fourth straight semi-finals. On the contrary, Italy missed the semis for the first time ever in the women’s Europeans since they entered the competition in 1989 (the Hungarians missed the SF only twice).
The other two matches lacked the same tensions, the two group-winners Spain and the Netherlands did a clean job as expected. Only the margin of their wins was in the question against France and Germany, though the hosts were a bit too tense and France fought bravely in the opening period, but after 2-2 the Spaniards produced a 5-0 rush in the second to settle the match.
The games for the lower ranks offered some thrills earlier, Croatia beat Turkey for the 11th place while the 9th place was decided by penalties too. Serbia was a bit luckier, buried two shots while Israel could score only once.
Dragan Matutinovic, head coach, Croatia:
“We are exactly where we deserve. There are some similar teams Turkey, Serbia, Israel… We could have done better. The 11th place is realistic. The team played with concentration. At the end we had +6, it could have been more if we hadn’t hit so many posts. There were mistakes but the team fought well. It is not easy to lose with 20, 30 goals difference and keep up the tension of the competition, you know. We should have won the group match against Israel. They are an excellent team, they have improved significantly with the arrival of the Greek coach. At the end it was a tie.”
Hakan Sahbaz, head coach, Turkey:
“What can I say? It was our worst game at the Europeans. The worst!”
Dimitrios Mavrotas, head coach, Israel:
“I think that when a match goes to penalties it’s more about luck then abilities. It was good, we had a good start using our counter-attacks well, paired with good defense. Then we received that unfortunate goal two seconds before the end. We are working towards a long-term plan which is Paris 2024 or Los Angeles 2028. It’s good for us to compete with better teams but maybe a format where we would play one more game with an equal team would be better and more encouraging. This way much depends on the draw.”
Dejan Jovovic, head coach, Serbia:
“It was a typical match for this kind of games. We fought as hard as we could. We had problems getting fouls but our defense was working well so we managed to reach a tie and eventually win after penalties.”
Georgios Morfesis, head coach, Greece:
“This happens in knock-out games… I am very proud of my team. They played excellent defense, were clever and never gave up. In the 3rd quarter, I told them to continue as these games finish with the last whistle. I’m also proud of how they played man-down. I want to congratulate them. Now we have to keep our mind on semi-finals.”
Andrei Belofastov, assistant coach, Russia:
“It was a tough, good game. We started off badly, were down two goals up until the second quarter. Then we managed to come back and were close to winning. Today they finally beat us in the penalty shootout. This is the third time in a row that we’re playing well but something is missing. For the first time in three years, we’re out before the semis but that’s sport. Sometimes you need to take a step back in order to move forward.”
Fabio Conti, head coach, Italy:
“It was a very close match, one goal up one goal down. They were better and deserve to go to the semi-finals. A missed penalty at the end does leave a bitter taste. We were expecting an even match. We simply made too many mistakes in defense while attack and man-up were better. It was a very physical game.
We have to work on the details. I want to congratulate my team, I know they gave their best. As I said before we are into the second year of a four-year cycle. We have to keep on working as the water polo keeps getting more and more aggressive.”
Attila Biro, head coach, Hungary
“I think we fully deserved this win, despite all the mistakes, our team effort was too strong and withstood all the pressure. The game went on as expected, including all elements, like facing seven turnover faults against one – this was to kill us, not the exclusions, even those numbers are also telling. Anyway, we were prepared for this, it’s usually in duels like this. It requires the mentality, the belief, the will and we just were better in those fields.”
Arno Havenga, head coach, Netherlands:
“It was an easy game. We knew it would be like that. We were concentrated, played with intensity which is a big plus for the last two matches. For us, it’s like the championships are starting all over again as we enter the top four.”
Anja Skibbe, head coach, Germany:
“It was OK for us. The Netherlands is a very good team. For us, it’s important to try solving problems, exercises in the game. That’s what makes me happy to see. Of course, they don’t have the concentration or strength to do that for the whole game. Most teams compared to us were heavily defeated so to keep the score under -20 is a plus for now. I hope in time we can change and develop a new style of water polo, more aggressive and with a lot more movement.”
Florian Bruzzo, head coach, France:
“It was a very difficult game for us against one of the best teams at this Europeans. My congratulations to them and I wish them the best in the semi-finals. We now have to play against Italy for the 5-8th place.”
Miguel Oca, head coach, Spain:
“The 0-2 start made us the beginning very difficult. Later in the 2nd quarter, we played good defense and scored 5 goals which allowed us to finish the match with calm. Semi-finals? Greece is a very strong team. They played very good games in the group stage. We have to prepare good tactics against them. It will be tough. We will have to give our best.”
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