Title-holder Serbs to meet host Spain in the final
Serbia made its 4th straight final at the European Water Polo Championships, and this is going to be the Olympic champions’ 8th final in the past 9 editions (since 2001). They beat the world champion Croatian team in an enormous physical battle. Spain arrives from the other semi, the hosts halted Italy’s fine run in a tense fight which saw fantastic twists before the Spaniards could win by a single goal and reach their second ever gold medal match at the Europeans after 1991.
Eleven 2016 Olympic champions versus eleven 2017 world champions: the first semi between Serbia and Croatia promised the very best of entertainment. And it didn’t disappoint the water polo fans though sometimes the encounter was even tougher than usual.
The heavyweight bombers didn’t give too much chances for the goalies in the first period, huge blasts hit the back of the net, the Serbs were more precise and gained a 5-3 lead. The defences got tightened at both ends – after the 8-goal opening period, the remaining three saw 8 goals altogether – which also meant some extra toughness and a couple of unnoticed punches fired up the sides even though the battle was heated enough already. After a ‘special’ entangling a double red card was supposed to calm down the teams but it took some time when play began dominating again. The game was virtually decided in the third when the Croats, beating the Serbs on the last three occasions, missed three man-ups in a row, thus instead of coming back to one goal, soon they found themselves three down (7-4). And even if they pulled one back late in the third, always the Serbs scored first in the fourth as well, they were cool enough to put away the ball in the crucial moments and deserved to reach their fourth consecutive final, the 8th in 9 editions (since 2001 they only missed the 2010 final).
The second semi was even more thrilling, as temperamental as any Mediterranean derby can be. Deep into the second period Spain seemed to catch the Italians at 4-1, they broke the toughest defence of the tournament while Dani Lopez delivered one save after the other in the locals’ goal. The Italians looked a bit bewildered upon facing their first real test after demolishing each rivals in their previous matches. However, two late goals by Vincenzo Renzuto brought them back to life, what’s more they began to play as in the past matches and soon they were in the lead. Francesco di Fulvio enjoyed a fantastic spell, he netted a hat-trick, his third put Italy 5-7 up with 6:53 to go. Spain, enjoying the backing of the crowd, could react the best possible way, though: ending an almost 12-minute drama which saw Italy’s 1-6 run, they quickly equalised in a span of 70 seconds (which also included a missed shot from di Fulvio in a man-up – add: Italy’s other hero, goalie Marco de Lungo, who posted an 84.0% saving percentage in the previous games, 93.3 against Russia, this evening dropped to 50.0%)
After 7-7, Italy got three, Spain two more man-ups, missed all amid high tensions, than came the big moment… Francisco Fernandez swam 20 metres with the ball, the others cleared his way and he drove himself close to the goal and finished the counter with a brilliant shot for 8-7: 94 seconds from time Spain led again. And they held on, since the ball was stopped by Lopez in the last Italian man-up. It wasn’t absolutely clear, whether it crossed the line or not, the goal-judge didn’t sign anything, and Spain began celebrating. For the second time after 1991, they made the European Championships final, and their first gold medal match since the 2009 World Championships in Rome. Just to recall history: they faced Serbia in that encounter, like now.
In the other games of the day, one goal decided in the battles of Hungary and Montenegro and then Greece and Russia – Montenegro and Greece prevailed and can play for the 5th place, while Hungary is facing to claim its second worst placement in history (their 9th was the all-time low in 1989). Germany clinched the 9th place (was 11th in 2016) with a fine victory over the Netherlands (improved from 12th), while Romania (10th) came 11th by beating France (dropped from 9th).
European Water Polo Championships, Day 13
Serbia v Croatia 9-7
Italy v Spain 8-7
For places 5-8th
Hungary v Montenegro 6-7
Greece v Russia 12-11
For places 9-10th
Netherlands v Germany 11-12
For places 11-12th
Romania v France 10-6
Fixtures Day 14
22.00 Netherlands v Freece
Bronze medal match
20.30 Hungary v Spain
For places 5-6th
18.15 Italy v Russia
For places 7-8th
16.45 Germany v France
Press release from LEN, photos courtesy of Deepbluemedia/Giorgio Scala