Hosts Croatia to fight Spain in Zagreb for European gold

Credit: European Aquatics

It will end how it started, Croatia and Spain will meet again in the final in Zagreb after their thrilling opener in Dubrovnik (won by Croatia in a shootout). The host Croats maintained the home sides’ streak to reach the final in the sixth consecutive edition since 2014 as they could fend off the young Hungarian teams’ renewing challenges. Spain showed a masterclass in defending against Italy, limiting them to a single goal in the first three periods. The winners of Tuesday’s final will also win a ticket to the Paris 2024 Olympic Games.

Semi-finals: Spain v Italy 7-4, Hungary v Croatia 8-11
For places 5-8th: Serbia v Greece 10-12, Romania v Montenegro 11-18

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In the second semi of the day, Croatia used the backing of 2,000 enthusiastic fans to halt the young Hungarians’ heroics 8-11, and they will now have the chance to win a third European title on home soil.

“The most important thing we talked about before this semifinal was that we needed to be very patient during the whole match,” said Croatia goalkeeper Marko Bijac after the contest.

“Hungary have played really well in this tournament, not just today, but we knew we would have our chances at certain points in the game.

“Luckily, it happened in the fourth period, we didn’t lose our heads, despite the result being very close for three quarters.

“I believe, at the end, we deserved this victory.

“As for me, it was hard to prepare for this match as I never played against many of these young players, but with the help of my defenders, we did really well.”

At the start of the game, Croatia took the lead twice in the opening period, but the Magyar boys replied again and again to keep up for 2-2.

In the second, Croatia’s power started dominating, their defence stood firm, killed three man-downs in a row, while Jerko Marinic-Kragic netted one and Loren Fatovic added an action goal later to make it 2-4 at halftime.

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Adam Nagy brought the Hungarians closer right away in the third, then came five minutes of intense battling.

The Magyars killed a double man-down, but also missed their 6 on 5s.

Both goalies, Bijac and Viktor Gyapjas, made fine saves in this phase, then the Croats forced a penalty and Marinic-Kragic sent it home.

This triggered something special, a flood of goals, in sharp contrast to what happened until then.

Nagy fired one in from the perimeter, the Croats got another penalty, Marinic-Kragic made no mistake once more.

Vince Vigvari also beat the Croatian zone from the wing, but Rino Buric’ centre-shot also made its way behind the goal-line.

The mad run was closed down by Gergo Fekete’s man-up goal – after netting a single goal in 14 minutes, the Magyars hit three in 122 seconds.

And a big block in a double man-down kept them close at 6-7 before the last quarter.

Croatia kicked off the fourth with a nicely played 6 on 5, finished by Luka Loncar and in 55 seconds Loren Fatovic’s 6m blast gave the hosts a three-goal lead for the first time in the game.

Nagy hit his third from a man-up for 7-9 and soon the Hungarians could launch another promising counter, but they lacked the necessary precision once more, the ball didn’t find the unmarked player.

Within moments, the Croats could unleash a 3 on 2, Zvonimir Butic scored with ease – instead of 8-9 it was 7-10, which put a virtual end to the contest.

Josip Vrlic’s fine shot blew up the place, fans were chanting in joy, Vigvari’s goal could never spoil the party, which sent Croatia to the final.

This is something they are used to doing when playing the Europeans at home – in 2010 and in 2022 they won gold, and another win on Tuesday will also secure them the Olympic berth.

Though perhaps this is going to be their most challenging final of the three, against Spain on Tuesday.

Credit: European Aquatics

“This time we didn’t have any problems in attack or in defence,” said Croatia’s assistant coach Jure Marelja afterwards.

“We played constantly all the game and that was the reason for our win today.

“Hungary played at a great level with young players, and I can only congratulate them, because this was a great game for the spectators.

“Spain in the final is a big challenge, as they are a great team, one of the biggest teams at this moment, but we already beat them in Dubrovnik, so I don’t see why we shouldn’t do it here as well in Zagreb.”

In the opposite corner, Hungary’s Adam Nagy felt he knew the reason for his young side’s defeat.

“What we missed today was definitely the concentration,” he said post-game.

“Today was the day when I felt we didn’t have the same focus we had had before.

“We made a lot of mistakes both in defence and in offence, we had two one-on-ones, couldn’t score either, and those goals would have been a huge boost.

“We hurried our shots sometimes, while the Croatians could maintain their concentration level, we couldn’t really disturb them in that.

“We knew we would play under huge pressure, from the crowd, from the Croatian team, which is a really great and experienced side, still, our focus was not as sharp as it should have been.”

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After the day’s opening semifinal, Spain’s winning coach David Martin praised both sets of players for their performance after a low-scoring but thrilling 4-7 semifinal win against Italy.

“I think both teams gave a defensive masterclass today, as it was difficult for both sides to score goals,” Martin said after his team reached the final.

“We received only four, but we could only make seven, which was very good for Italy.

“Italy are always a very strong team and put on a show for the spectators, so I’m very happy to arrive in the final.

“I think at the beginning, our extra man was very good for us, and they had a lot of problems on man down, but at the end, the game was decided by the small details and I think we were better in those in most things today.”

In the game, Spain got the better start, a distant and brilliant one-timer from Felipe Perrone and a second attempt in a man-up by Alberto Munarriz gave them a 2-0 lead.

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Italy needed six minutes to get on the scoreboard, Alessandro Velotto’s deflected ball found the back of the net from a man-up – they missed two beforehand –, otherwise defences worked well, denying the vast majority of the 14 shots taken.

Alvaro Granados sent the ball home right from the first man-up in the second with a powerful shot for 3-1, then came another long phase of battling with a lot of swimming and position play.

Both sides missed a man-up apiece, the shots from the perimeter were easy catches if on target at all.

Then another ‘pair’ of man-ups were called, first to Italy, who wasted it without a shot, then for Spain, and Blai Mallarach’s left-handed one-timer was the cleanest finish possible.

Unai Aguirre delivered great saves in Spain’s goal, and stood with 9/10, 90% at halftime.

“Our defence was really solid, it was a great team effort, good blocks, good positioning and when you have a defence like this, then it’s easy to save,” Aguirre said post-game.

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He was instrumental in Spain’s 4-1 lead, which could have been more, but Marco del Lungo came up with a huge penalty stop 20 seconds before the middle break.

Italy’s shooting ratio was still reminiscent when they were blasted by Hungary in the group – by halftime they had produced 1/16 (was trailing 1-3), now their count was 1/15.

Spain went for a 2m finish in their first two man-ups in the third, but it didn’t work.

Fondelli took the shot from the back in Italy’s first 6 on 5, the ball ended up in the hands of Aguirre once more, though the bigger credits went to the defenders.

Dolce tried his luck from the wing, again on an extra, Aguirre stopped that one too.

Spain’s next 6 on 5 came after a time-out, but they were unable to set it up well, the Italian defence was clicking also.

Then from the fourth one in this period, Alejandro Bustos netted one from close.

Though the first shot was denied by the blocks, he was left unmarked for a second and it was enough for a quick assist and ultimately to make it 5-1 for Spain.

Breaking the deadlock after a scoreless phase of eight minutes seemed to be decisive, especially since Italy missed back-to-back man-ups in last minutes of this quarter.

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They were 1 for 9 in 6 on 5 at this stage, 1/22 for shots, and one could barely recall a match where they could score a single goal in three periods.

Marco del Lungo saved some chance for the Italians, denied a late man-up in the third and stopped two more shots in Spain’s 6 on 5 early in the fourth.

Then Francesco Condemi ended the Settebello’s painfully long drought after 19:12 minutes (Italy didn’t score in the middle two periods at all), but Granados buried a penalty in 47 seconds.

Condemi went for another one to make it 6-3, followed by some good defending and a fine attack ending in a penalty.

Edoardo di Somma converted it, Italy scored three within two minutes and the match started heating up.

Felipe Perrone’s incredibly smart finish in an extra reset the three-goal gap and Francesco di Fulvio’s next shot from a man-up was caught by Aguirre, just like di Somma’s shot – it looked like Italy had a better spell but that was all.

Francesco di Fulvio, the top blaster of Italy, was 0/7 but the others were also way off their best – though the Spaniards did a lot to neutralise their offensive power.

“It was a team effort but also Unai, it was crazy how he saved the balls,” said a jubilant Spain captain Felipe Perrone after the contest.

“I’m so happy for his performance, he is such a water polo lover, he is just 20, though sometimes looks like an experienced 40 year-old.

“Our defence was amazing and that gave us a lot of confidence.

“This works not only in water polo but in every other sport in Spain, if the defence is good, we can go for counter-attacks and play our game.”

In contrast, Italy coach Alessandro Campagna couldn’t fully explain his team’s struggles in attack.

“We didn’t make good choices with our shooting, I don’t know why, maybe tiredness,” he said afterwards.

“I thought in defence, we played well, conceding seven goals in a semifinal, but in attack we moved, we tried a lot, but we just couldn’t score goals from distance.”

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In the classification matches for the 5-8th places – where not much was left at stake, apart from playing for restoring some pride –, a better spell gave the win to the Greeks against Serbia 10-12.

These two clashed in the World Championship semis last July, back then Greece was superior.

This time the game was a lot more balanced, it stood 7-7 at halftime, then in the third period both sides’ concentration level dropped significantly, and they could add one goal apiece.

Then Greece geared up a bit earlier, scored four goals from as many possessions in the first four minutes and that was enough to secure the victory.

There was something to decide on in the other match between Montenegro and Romania – the spots to be filled in the group-stage at the Worlds in Doha in February.

The winner was to join the company of Serbia, USA and Japan, while the loser would go to Italy, Hungary and Kazakhstan.

Though Romania took a flying start and gained a 3-0 lead early on, the Montenegrins woke up in time and hit four still in the first period to make it 3-4.

Vlad Georgescu equalised early in the second, but it was followed by another 0-4 run by the favourites, which determined the remaining path of the match.

The Romanians were forced into a chasing game and even though they could climb back to trail by two from time to time, the Montenegrins always found the way to reset the 3-4 goal lead.

In the end, the gap was seven as Montenegro eased their way to a 11-18 victory to set up a 5th/6th final with Greece.