Ten days ago, the list of the participants in the Final Eight in Belgrade was completed. Yesterday, we found out the pairs of the quarterfinals.
After the end of the group stage, we can conclude that there were not many surprising results. The big six favorites qualified for the Final Eight from the top three places in their respective groups. Besides them, Vouliagmeni and Jug will play in the Final Eight.
The situations in both groups were the same throughout the season – three teams battled for 1st place, and several clubs were in the race for the fourth F8 ticket.
Most of the predictions came true, but the final standings in both groups aren’t the same as water polo experts and bookmakers predicted before the start of the season. This is especially true for Group A.
Let’s start with Group A.
Barceloneta finished 1st, which is a little bit surprising. Before the Champions League, many saw the Spanish champion in 3rd place, behind Pro Recco and Olympiacos. The Spaniards opened the season excellently. A 9:7 victory over Olympiacos in Piraeus was very encouraging. Still, two weeks after, Pro Recco sank Barceloneta in Spain (11:5), and the number of those who predicted that Barceloneta couldn’t finish higher than 3rd place increased. But, the Spaniards recovered from that defeat and recorded their first-ever Champions League win over Pro Recco in Italy (9:8), beat Olympiacos in Barcelona (10:5), and made no mistakes at the finish of the group stage, keeping the top spot.
Perrone’s new role
Last summer, Barceloneta left without an outstanding goalscorer Alvaro Granados, who moved to Novi Beograd. Finding a replacement for a player like Granados is almost impossible. But Barceloneta didn’t look for a replacement. Head coach Elvis Fatovic changed something in the style of the play. Felipe Perrone has been the leader of the team for years. But, his contribution to the wins hadn’t been so visible in the statistics before (in the top scorers’ lists). This season, the 37-year-old veteran started leading his team in the other manner. He became the top scorer of the Champions League Group Stage (38 goals). It turns out that he is a replacement for Granados, along with Munarriz, Pavillard, etc.
Defense, commanded by Unai Aguirre, was excellent in almost all matches. A well-composed team deserved the top spot.
Barceloneta determined Recco’s and Olympiacos’ journeys
As for Olympiacos and Pro Recco, losses to Barceloneta determined their following journeys in the Champions League, so they battled for 2nd place in the Group in the last derby of the group stage.
On the opening day of the 2023 Champions League, Olympiacos beat Pro Recco in Piraeus but failed to defeat Barceloneta in the same pool and Radnicki in Kragujevac. Because of that, the Greeks were out of the race for the top spot.
The match against Barceloneta in Italy was Pro Recco’s first home loss in the Champions League after three years and the only game in which the European champion entered as a favorite but lost the points.
Yesterday Pro Recco produced a great comeback in the match against Olympiacos. The Italians trailed 3:7 in the middle of the second quarter, but they won the encounter (10:9) and kept 2nd place.
Vouliagmeni showed its best at the right time and in the right place
Vouliagmeni arrives at the Final Eight with a poor goal difference (-26). What does that fact tell us? Obviously, Vouliagmeni played smart throughout the season. The team was aware of its qualities and the fact that it couldn’t go higher than 4th place. So, they focused on the games against the teams that were their rivals in the race for position 4.
Vouliagmeni suffered six more or less convincing losses to the top three teams, but it did what it had to do in the matches against Jadran, Radnicki, Dinamo and Waspo Hannover. It beat the Germans and the Georgians twice, defeated Jadran in Athens, and shared the points with Jadran in Split and with Radnicki in Kragujevac. Yesterday’s loss to Radnicki wasn’t painful because everything was decided before.
Vouliagmeni didn’t cause surprises in the group stage, and will try to do it at the Final Eight.
Besides Vouliagmeni, contenders for 4th place were Jadran Split and Radnicki.
The Serbian team made one surprise, with a draw against Olympiacos (actually, the Greek champion saved a point with a last-gasp goal), but it didn’t win enough points in the direct rivals for 4th place. Radnicki left without two players in the middle of the season (Radulovic and Vico left the club), which affected their play, together with many injuries.. But, the results and plays at the finish of the season give hope for the future.
Despite finishing 5th, Jadran didn’t have a bad European season. It secured itself a spot in the Preliminary Stage with six wins in as many matches in the qualifications. The Croats didn’t win a single point in the duels with the top three teams, but none won points in Split easily. However, Jadran couldn’t beat Vouliagmeni and Radnicki at home. The Split-based team earned only two home wins (against Dinamo and, yesterday, against Hannover when everything was decided). Because of relatively bad results in the games in Split, Jadran was out of the race for the F8 before the last round. An away win over Radnicki didn’t help the Croats.
Waspo Hannover and Dinamo Tbilisi had a few good moments in the season, but already halfway through the group stage, it was more or less clear that they couldn’t reach Final Eight.
A three-horse race for the top spot was expected in Group B. These three teams finished in the first three positions – Brescia, Novi Beograd and Ferencvaros.
Brescia didn’t let itself make mistakes in the matches in which it was the favorite. Brescia is the only team in the 2023 Champions League with a perfect 7-0 record at home. The Italians were defeated by Novi Beograd and Ferencvaros in away games, but they lost only two points against the teams ranked 4th – 8th (a 14:14 draw with OSC in Budapest). The team led by Alessandro Bovo, who has been Brescia’s coach since 2008, kept its shape on a constant level throughout the season. Brescia didn’t have big downs, and that’s why it finished atop the group.
Unlike Brescia, Novi Beograd, which was considered the biggest favorite for the top spot, and Ferencvaros lost some points unplanned.
Novi Beograd’s and Ferencvaros’ dropped points
The host of the Final Eight has had another turbulent season, with a lot of ups and downs in all competitions. As for the Champions League, two draws in the matches with Jug costed Novi Beograd dearly. The Serbian champion didn’t compensate for these four points with an eventual away win over Brescia or Ferencvaros. Novi Beograd was close to at least a point in Budapest despite having only 11 healthy players for that match.
Ferencvaros returned home empty-handed from Brescia and Belgrade, but Ferencvaros’ biggest failure in the season was a loss to Spandau in Berlin (the Hungarians had problems with injuries). They won only a point in Dubrovnik. After the match in Croatia, a dream of 1st or 2nd place practically disappeared. Ferenncvaros lost to Marseille in France and Sabadell in Budapest, but these defeats came when Ferenvaros had already lost chances of moving higher than 3rd place.
Jug in front of rivals thanks to tiny details
The battle for the fourth position was exciting. Jug finished 4th and will play at the Final Eight/Final Six for the eighth time in a row. The Dubrovnik-based side wasn’t a favorite for 1st place, but it wasn’t an underdog either. The Croats’ shape was going like a rollercoaster throughout the season. They were able to remain undefeated in the games against Novi Beograd (not just in the Champions League, but in the semifinals of the Regional League). They won a point against Ferencvaros. However, Jug lost to Spandau in Dubrovnik.
Similarly to Vouliagmeni, Jug played well in most of the games against the contenders for 4th place (with the exception of the matches against Spandau). It won 4 points against OSC. After beating the same rivals in Dubrovnik, it lost away games against Sabadell and Marseille. But, Jug managed to keep better head-to-head scores in the duels with the Spaniards and the French. Considering the results and performances this season, it can be said that Jug played exactly as much as needed to win 4th place.
Marseille, the participant in the F8s in 2021 and 2022, is maybe the only disappointment of the season. The French club was considered one of the favorites. It’s true that Marseille displayed quite good performances in most of the matches and didn’t suffer many convincing losses, but it had only seven points before the last three rounds. The recent wins over Ferencvaros (13:7) and Jug (15:11) show that Marseille maybe gotten into the right shape too late.
As for Sabadell and OSC, neither of the teams surprised the favorites (Sabadell beat Ferencvaros on Margaret Island two days ago, but in the match without competitive importance). OSC suffered only a few very convincing losses, while nobody found it easy to beat Sabadell. Still, tiny details and differences in the matches against Jug kept OSC and Sabadell far from 4th place.
In the middle of the season, Spandau shocked favorites and indicated that it could become a surprise team of the season. We asked, “Has Foreign Legion started new golden water polo era in Berlin?”. In that article, we said that Spandau’s good results had come as a combination of Spandau’s qualities and different circumstances. Now, we can conclude that circumstances were a more decisive factor than qualities. In the last six rounds, Spandau won only three points and dropped to the last position. The club achieved its primary goal on the domestic stage and won the German title. Next year, it will have a wild card again and a new opportunity to prove itself in Europe.