Serbia clinches 4th title in a row, though Spain falls only in shootout
For the first time in the history of the European Water Polo Championships, the penalty shootout decided the title and it was retained by Serbia, despite an electrifying performance of the host Spaniards. This was the Serbs’ 8th gold medal, and the 7th in the last nine editions since 2001. Croatia got rid of its demons and clinched the bronze medal after four lost matches played for the third place in the past.
Before this match, Spain’s only European final was against Yugoslavia in 1991 – they lost it. And their last final till date was at the 2009 World Championships, when they met Serbia – and lost in the penalty shootout. On the other hand, the Serbs won 23 gold medals since 2001 and claimed 9 consecutive titles in 2014-2017 before losing in the semis of the 2017 World Championships – with eleven Olympic champion players they were the outstanding favourites, however, the Spaniards were up the task.
After the initial tensions and two missed man-ups at both sides, Spain took the lead with Blai Mallarach’s left-handed shot from an extra. The hosts did their utmost and their hyper-enthusiastic approach and electrifying playing style pushed the title-holders off their usual track. They needed 8:54 minutes to get on the scoreboard but deep into the second they found themselves 1-3 down again.
The Serbs had a better spell when they showed their real selves and immediately equalised, however, with some luck Felipe Perrone just beat the buzzer after a rebound to give back the lead for Spain by halftime (3-4). Miguel del Toro doubled the lead from a free-throw right at the beginning of the third and the 4,000 spectators began to believe in the miracle – but next came the Olympic champions, tightened their defence, killed two man-downs while staging a 3-0 rush (Dusan Mandic’s action goal was one of a kind) and for the first time in the game the Serbs were up at 6-5 with 0:19 remaining. Still, a magnificent lob from Alberto Munarriz put the hosts back to even in the dying seconds before the last break.
The closing period of the championships couldn’t have been any more thrilling. Some tremendous defending denied two man-ups at both ends, then Nikola Jaksic put away another one for the Serbs but the hosts managed to reply with Mallarach’s great shot for 7-7, with 4:30 remaining on the clock. The Serbs earned another 6 on 5, but Lopez, best goalie of the championships, headed out Filipovic’s blast (Filip the great was 0/6 this evening), then the Spaniards couldn’t take a shot in their last man-up 67 seconds from time.
So the decision on the gold medal was left to the penalties – for the first time in the history of the European Championships, and just like at the 2009 Worlds, featuring the same to teams. That time the Serbs prevailed, and it ended the same here as well: one miss decided the outcome, Francisco Fernandez, hero of the semi-finals who scored the game-winner against Italy, hit the post and that gave the title to the Serbs who buried all five shots (including Filipovic who was picked for the MVP award).
It means that this was Serbia’s 4th consecutive title, they are now one gold away to tie Hungary’s record run of five straight wins (from the first five editions). This was their 8th title in history, they won 7 of the last 9 editions since 2001.
Spain deserves all credit as the first team since many years which almost made all the way while facing the Serbs in a major final. At the same time, they couldn’t join the company of Hungary (1926 and 1958), Serbia (2006 and 2016) and Germany (1989), teams capturing gold while playing at home. Still, the locals celebrated their team as if had captured the title – in fact, the Spaniards remained unbeaten in the regular time in the championships, a rather noble way to claim silver medal.
Croatia began the bronze medal game in the style of the Italians: they took a commanding 4-0 lead in eight minutes, while Italy didn’t show any sign of the game having rocketed them to the top four. They somewhat came back to life by netting two in the first 45 seconds of the second period, but the Croats took the same time to go 6-2 ahead again – Luka Loncar’s tipped goal from the centre was one of the most beautiful goals of the tournament. Still, the Italians fought hard and halved their deficit by halftime to 7-5.
And they had a man-up to climb back to one right in the first possession of the third but Marko Bijac came up with a big save and soon Loren Fatovic reset the 3-goal margin with a fine shot. Italy missed another man-up and soon Andro Buslje’s pinpoint distance shot put the Croats 9-5 ahead. Though Marco del Lungo returned to the Italian goal – he was substituted after 0-4 – and made some saves, the world champions were still 10-6 up with 4:26 to go. Italy pulled two back in the last two minutes but their rivals’ win was never in danger.
It means that Croatia broke the ‘bronze-curse’, after losing all four matches played for the third place in their history (1995, 1997, 2001, 2008), now they managed to clinch the medal on their 5th try. On the other end, just four days ago few would have thought that Italy, playing overwhelmingly in their first four matches, will leave Barcelona empty-handed.
In the matches for the lower ranks Greece beat Montenegro for the first time at the Europeans (after three defeats) and clinched the 5th place. The only consolation for the Montenegrins, runners-up in Belgrade 2016, might be Aleksandar Ivovic’s hat-trick, with that he caught up the rival’s best shooter Ioannis Fountoulis in the race for the top scorer’s crown. Since Fountoulis was off the target in this match (0/6), he had to share the prize with the veteran Montenegrin.
Hungary sank to the 8th place after losing 8-9 to Russia. At the Europeans the Soviet Union could beat the Magyars for the last time in 1991, the next six matches against Russia saw Hungarian wins in a row (as Russia they could catch them in 2002 till today). At one stage the Russians led 4-8, then the Hungarians staged a late surge, had a possession to force a shootout but missed the last shot and with only 2 wins in 7 matches they had to settle for the 8th place, their second worst ever performance (9th, 1989) since 1926.
Bouncing back is badly needed for Hungary, since the next edition of the European Water Polo Championships will be held in Budapest, in the state-of-the-art Duna Arena in January 2020.
European Water Polo Championships, Day 15
Serbia v Spain 7-7, penalties: 5-3
Bronze medal match
Croatia v Italy 10-8
For places 5-6th
Montenegro v Greece 6-8
For places 7-8th
Hungary v Russia 8-9
Top scorer: Aleksandar Ivovic (MNE) and Ioannis Fountloulis (GRE) 17-17 goals
Most valuable player: Filip Filipovic (SRB)
Best goalkeeper: Dani Lopez (ESP)
All-time medal table
Press release from LEN, photos courtesy of Deepbluemedia/Giorgio Scala