There were not many surprises in the first eight rounds of the Preliminary Stage of the Champions League. Most of the favorites achieved what was expected. The battle for 1st place in Group A is a three-horse race. A similar situation is in Group B.
However, as usual, some teams surprised favorites, while others disappointed themselves and their fans. And it’s perfect for water polo. Sports competitions aren’t interesting if everything is predictable.
It is easy to find the answer to the question of which team has been the biggest surprise.
A surprise team in the 2023 Champions League is the “Berlin Foreign Legion” – Spandau 04, which shocked a few favorites and has realistic chances of reaching the Final Eight.
The Berliners didn’t achieve significant success in Europe in the past few decades. They have played in the Champions League since a new format was introduced in 2013. But, in the past ten years, they reached the F8 just once and finished 8th in Genoa in 2018.
Before the start of the season, we wrote that Spandau, the four-time European champion from the 1980s, wanted to play a more significant role in Europe than before. In that article, we asked: “Can the golden 1980s return?”
The club’s management was very active in the transfer market.
A few good players left the club (Nikola Dedovic and Dimitrios Nikolaidis). One of the best German players in the 21st century, Marko Stamm, is missing, too. His name is on Spandau’s extended roster. He hasn’t officially retired yet. Still, Stamm hasn’t played this season. He was on the scoresheet only in the match against Novi Beograd, when many players were infected by a coronavirus.
However, the list of good players who arrived was longer than the list of departures.
The biggest reinforcement was Luca Marzali, the first-ever Italian to play in Spandau and the center-forward of “Settebello “. Besides Marziali, Spandau’s new center for this season is Bilal Gbadamassi. The Dutch learned some water polo lessons playing for Partizan. Last season, Gbadamassi proved that he had matured and developed into a very good player in the Hungarian League, wearing the cap of Szolnok. Experienced Russian Roman Shepelev arrived from Dynamo Moskow. One of the additions was Romanian Andrei Prioteasa.
They extended the “Berlin Foreign Legion”, as three very good and experienced foreigners, Kholod, goalkeeper Baksa, and Tkac had already played for Spandau.
This season, Kholod became the team’s leader and best scorer.
The club changed its head coach, too. Greek Athanasios Kechagias, who coached several national teams, including Romania, until 2022, replaced Petar Kovacevic, who went to France.
Several players of the national team of Germany are in Spandau. Clearly, it’s a good team and nobody can consider Spandau an underdog.
The Berliners won two points in away games in the early stage of the Champions League – against OSC and Sabadell. The Spaniards and the Hungarians, maybe (we underline maybe), underestimated Spandau.
That wasn’t the end of the Berliners’ dream. In January, they beat Ferencvaros in Berlin (11:10). Last week, they downed Jug in Dubrovnik (13:11)
After two away draws at the start of the season, everybody became aware that Spandau wasn’t an underdog. Certainly, favorites Ferencvaros and Jug didn’t underestimate the Berliners.
We don’t want to find excuses for the favorites and disrespect Spandau’s qualities.
Still, good and surprising results came as a combination of Spandau’s qualities and different circumstances.
The water polo calendar is one circumstance beyond the players’ and the coaches’ control.
Until yesterday, Jug played 33 games this season. In the last four and a half months, Ferencvaros has had 30 games. On the other hand, Spandau played 22 games.Spandau has played 11 games fewer than Jug since October!
On Monday, a day before the next Champions League round, the difference in the number of games will be even bigger. Jug will have 35, Ferencvaros 31, and Spandau 23 matches in the season.
Jug and Ferencvaros have played many challenging matches in their domestic competitions and the Regional League. Spandau has had few demanding tasks in domestic competitions and cruised to a win in almost each of the 14 domestic games.
Most of Spandau’s players are at the best age for water polo players. They are experienced enough and don’t need many challenging matches to keep their shape at a high level.
Unlike the clubs from Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Italy, and other countries from the European top, Spandau has enough time to prepare properly for games on the European stage.
Now, let’s briefly analyze what happened in Berlin and Dubrovnik.
Ferencvaros arrived in Berlin without three key players. Szilard Jansik, the MVP of the European Championships, goalkeeper Soma Vogel, and Luca Damonte were injured.
As for Jug, it made many mistakes in both games against Spandau.
If Mateo Cuk hadn’t committed a brutality foul two and a half minutes before the end, Jug might have returned home empty-handed from Berlin. Spandau led 9:7 early in the fourth. At the moment of the exclusion, the score was 10:10. In the end, Jug celebrated a 12:11 win.
Spandau took revenge with a 13:11 victory in Dubrovnik. Well-versed experts say that the match against Spandau in Dubrovnik has been Jug’s worst performance in the last several seasons. Jug head coach Vjekoslav Kobescak noted that his team had played worse and worse in the last few months, culminating in the return match against Spandau. But, he added that Spandau dominated the game in Dubrovnik. So, Jug’s terrible performance isn’t the only reason for the outcome of that game. A lot depended on Spandau.
Head coach Kechagias deserves credit for Spandau’s good performance. He prepares the team well, analyzes the opponents, and finds the rivals’ weak spots.
Spandau knows how to learn from its mistakes.
This is the freshest example – Marko Zuvela and Loren Fatovic combined ten goals for Jug in Berlin (Zuvela 6, Fatovic 4). Spandau stopped them in the second match – Fatovic scored one, and Zuvela two goals in Dubrovnik.
Overall, some circumstances and favorites’ bad moments helped Spandau surprise the better teams. But only a quality and well-prepared team can take advantage of a favorite’s bad day. Today’s Spandau is one of these good teams.
We return to the question: “Can the golden 1980s return?”. Considering Spandau’s results this season, the answer is “Maybe”, because Spandau is yet to prove its full potential. The beginning is promising. If the “Berlin Foreign Legion” continues going as it started, Spandau’s new golden era will begin soon.