Greece, Hungary advance as Russia and Italy pay the final penalty
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 the 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 equalised 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 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 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.
European Championships, Day 10
Greece v Russia 6-6, penalties: 5-4
Italy v Hungary 9-10
Netherlands v Germany 22-2
France v Spain 5-14
Semi-finals (on 25 July)
17.00 Netherlands v Hungary
18.30 Greece v Spain
For places 9-10th
Israel v Serbia 4-4, penalties: 1-2
For places 11-12th
Croatia v Turkey 11-6
Fixtures, Day 11
17.00 Serbia v Hungary
18.30 Croatia v Montenegro
20.30 Italy v Russia
22.00 Spain v Greece
For places 9-12th
13.30 Romania v Netherlands
15.00 Germany v France
For places 13-14th
12.00 Georgia v Slovakia
For places 15-16th
10.30 Turkey v Malta
Press release from LEN, photos courtesy of Deepbluemedia/Giorgio Scala