The inaugural Women’s Champions League Final Four is set to take place this weekend, marking the climax of an exhilarating year of high-quality, high-drama water polo. The best of the action may still be yet to come though, as Europe’s best club competition continues to showcase one of sport’s most exciting qualities – that anything is possible, and anyone can be crowned champion of Europe.
Four worthy finalists are preparing to compete in the city of Sabadell, which has a rich water polo tradition and high expectations for its women’s teams. Two Spanish clubs, Sabadell and Mataro, are among the favourites, as they have the highest expectations and the advantage of playing on home turf. Sabadell, in particular, is a serial five-time winner of the Champions League, and is poised to lift another European title in front of their devoted fans. However, Mataro, Sabadell’s fiercest domestic rivals, are also vying for European glory. They have never made it to the final of this competition before, and an appearance in the final – and perhaps even some silverware – is long overdue for one of Europe’s most ambitious clubs.
Should Sabadell and Mataro both progress to the final, it will be the first time in the history of the competition (including its previous iterations) that two teams from the same nation will face off in the final.
While the Spanish clubs are considered favourites due to their quality and home advantage, the other two sides, Ekipe Orizzonte and Dunaujvaros, are more than satisfied with the ‘underdog’ label. In fact, it’s a label they seem to relish, as it has motivated them throughout the competition. It may sound laughable to consider the most successful Women’s Champions League club in history, Ekipe Orizzonte, as underdogs. However, it’s been twelve long years since the Italians last played in the final of a competition they have dominated over the years. Now, they have a timely opportunity to re-stamp their authority on the competition.
Ekipe Orizzonte are the competitions most successful team with 8 Champions League titles. Sabadell are the second most successful team with five titles.
The fourth and final team appearing in this season’s Final Four is Dunaujvaros, which may be considered the ‘black sheep’ of the line-up. However, they are by no means making up the numbers. They have overcome every obstacle they’ve faced in the competition so far with composure and belief, despite not having spent big in the summer or replacing their lost stars, who joined their rivals. On paper, they may seem to be the weakest team in Sabadell this weekend. However, Attila Mihok and his Hungarian team haven’t seemed to care about the reputation of their opponents or how they’re viewed as a team. They have a togetherness and spirit that is unrivalled, combined with tactical intelligence and technical quality that make them very dangerous opponents indeed.
16:45 – Ekipe Orizzonte vs Astralpool Sabadell 20:00 – CN Mataro vs Dunaujvaros
16:45 – Ekipe Orizzonte vs Astralpool Sabadell
20:00 – CN Mataro vs Dunaujvaros
2023 Final Four (Sabadell, March 31- April 1), participants
CN Astralpool Sabadell (Spain)
Last five seasons – 2022:2nd 2021:DNQ 2020: Cancelled 2019: 1st 2018: 2nd
Best results: 5x winner (2010–11, 2012–13, 2013–14, 2015–16, 2018–19)
Results in other competitions this season – Copa Catalunya winners, Copa de la Reina winners
Stars to watch: Bea Ortiz, Maica Garcia, Judith Forca, Elena Ruiz, Irene Gonzalez, Sabrina Van der Sloot, Maggie Steffens
Head coach: David Palma
Sabadell are the hosts with the most. The reigning Spanish Champions, in front of a home crowd at Can Llong, have a great chance of securing a 6th European Cup. Pound for pound, they have the strongest line-up, with strength everywhere. Their two-pronged attack, with depth in the buoy position (Garcia and Leiton), coupled with dangerous shooters on the top (Ruiz, Forca, Ortiz) has helped them tear defences apart this campaign.
However, they do have a kryptonite called ‘CN Mataro’. They have lost four games this season, three of which have come up against their national league counterparts. If indeed the two teams should meet in the final, Sabadell have every reason to be cautious.
Sabadell secured their first ever Champions League (Euro League) title back in 2011. The beat Ekipe 13-8 in that final, the very same opponents they face in the semi-finals this weekend.
But first, David Palma will be quietly optimistic ahead of the semi-final with Ekipe. The key for his side will be their work in their defensive third. They will certainly create opportunities for their star-studded attack to convert, but there has been at times this season, a defensive frailty that they can’t afford to wear this weekend.
Can Llong can be a really tough place to play at too. Many clubs, both male and female, have crumbled against the impassioned crowd there, with SIS Roma in the quarter-finals being the perfect example (falling irrecoverably behind in the first leg). In a game of fine margins, the home advantage could prove to be a big factor.
CN Mataro (Spain)
Last five seasons – 2022: DNQ 2021:DNQ 2020: Cancelled 2019: DNQ 2018: DNQ
Best results: 4th (2016-2017)
Results in other competitions this season – Spanish Super Cup winners
Stars to watch: Simone Van de Kraats, Anni Espar, Rita Keszthelyi-Nagy, Vivian Sevenich, Silvia Avegno
Head coach: Dani Ballart
While Sabadell might have the best squad, Mataro might be considered a dark horse given the way they skilfully dispatched the reigning champions, Olympiacos.
Mataro possess a firepower that is the envy of every single club in Europe – with a perimeter that includes left-handed sniper, Simone Van de Kraats, with Rita Keszthelyi-Nagy and Silvia Avegno operating on the left. Before adding Anni Espar into the mix, and the might of the Sevenich and Nogue on 2m at either ends of the pool, you’re looking at a team of true superstars; enough to win any game, and perhaps, any trophy.
Rita Keszthelyi-Nagy has played for three teams at this years Final-Four competition. She helped Ekipe Orizzonte to a Euro League Bronze medal in 2014, and spent two years with Dunaujvaros between 2009-2011. She has never won this competition; the closest she has got thus far was as a runner-up with UVSE in 2016.
Mataro, like Sabadell, will also need to focus on what they do without the ball, but they’ll really need to hone in on finding a solution to deal with the physicality of Dunaujvaros, and Sabadell should the both meet in the final.
Dani Ballart’s team have only ever reached this stage of the competition once before, so it is uncharted territory for the majority of the squad. There is, however, a lot of seasoned players amongst the Maresme’s ranks, and those big game players, with all their experience, might be crucial in Mataro’s bid to lift their first European title.
Ekipe Orizzonte (Italy)
Last five seasons – 2022: DNQ 2021: DNQ 2020: Cancelled 2019: DNQ 2018: 3rd
Best results: 8x winner (1993–94, 1997–98, 2000–01, 2001–02, 2003–04, 2004–05, 2005–06, 2007–08)
Results in other competitions this season – Coppa Italia winners
Stars to watch: Bronte Halligan, Alice Williams, Claudia Marletta, Sofia Giustini
Head coach: Martina Miceli
The European royalty from Catania always have an element of expectation when it comes to the Champions League. As the record-holding eight-time winners of the competition, the history of the club weighs a little heavier on the shoulders of the reigning Italian champions. The management pairing of Ekipe Orizzonte legends Martina Miceli (Head Coach) and Tania Di Mario (Director) will no doubt have already shared what this competition means to the club.
Ekipe Coach, Martina Miceli, won the Champions League three times with Orizzonte as a player (1993-94 , 2005-06 , 2007-08). The Italian was the first female coach to lift the LEN Trophy, and lifting the Champions League trophy would see her become the first female coach to do so.
Six of the Ekipe team are members of the ever-improving Setterosa, while the not so secret Australian contingent in Catania of Bronte Halligan and Alice Williams has proved to be a masterclass in recruitment for Orizzonte.
Sabadell face Ekipe Orizzonte in the first semi-final. Historically, the teams are perfectly matched; in five previous meetings, both teams have won twice each, and drawn on one occasion.
In truth, Ekipe have had a fairly uncomplicated route to this Final-4 competition. They qualified firstly at the expense of national rivals Plebiscito, before looking comfortably better than Glyfada.
In some ways, reaching the Final-4 is quite a surprise given Ekipe’s early season form. However, the season is a marathon, not a sprint, and the reigning Italian League and Cup champions can now see the finishing line. Beating Sabadell in the Semi-Finals is a long shot really, but on their day Ekipe really can put their opponents to the sword. This young team would probably be happy to match their third place finish back in 2018, but its not in Ekipe’s DNA to be satisfied with anything other than trophies.
Last five seasons – 2022: DNQ 2021: 2nd 2020: Cancelled 2019:DNQ 2018: DNQ
Best results: 2nd (2002-2003, 2020-2021)
Results in other competitions this season – Hungarian Cup (First round exit)
Stars to watch: Geraldine Mahieu, Lili Dobi Dorina, Laura Aarts, Nora Sumegi, Anna Mandula
Head coach: Attila Mihok
The underdogs from Hungary certainly deserve their place in the Semi-Finals, and will relish the idea of taking on Mataro. Ujvaros, led by long-time coach Attila Mihok, will hope they can progress to their third successive European final (LEN Trophy 2022, Euro League 2021). Perhaps after seeing their compatriots UVSE shock Ferencvaros last night in the Euro Cup final, they too will believe they can cause an upset in Catalonia.
Of the four teams involved in the Final-4 in Sabadell, only Dunaujvaros have not won a trophy this season.
Ujvaros have had some ups and downs this season, and thats evident in some results in the Hungarian League this season. But those kind of blips are to be expected with a team with so many young players. What’s important for Dunaujvaros is that the more experienced players lead the way for the Orange and Blues from Feher county.
Dunaujvaros have played Mataro three times since 2017, and have emerged victorious in all three clashes.
Alongside the Champions League, they still have an outside shot at the Hungarian League. To win either would be quite a surprise, but even if they finish the season empty-handed, getting to the Final-4 is already a pretty solid achievement for a team who are in a stage of transition.
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