Serbia set the tone, Romania snatch crucial win

Credit: European Aquatics

The first day of the second division tournaments offered no surprises. In Zagreb, Serbia thrashed Israel, and Germany managed to overcome some difficulties to down Malta. In Dubrovnik, Slovakia upended Slovenia, while Romania beat the Netherlands in a crucial match-up.

Group C (Zagreb): Serbia v Israel 22-1, Germany v Malta 18-13
Group D (Dubrovnik): Slovakia v Slovenia 12-7, Netherlands v Romania 8-12

If there was a bad timing for such a ‘malheur’ what the Serbs did by failing to make the top eight at the Europeans, it was definitely Split 2022.

With the advent of the two-division format, their worst-ever performance dropped them to the lower part for this edition, also terrible news for their rivals.

It soon turned out that they still have the potential, perhaps not the same as in the previous years when their golden generation claimed back-to-back Olympic crowns, but at the next big showcase they managed to make the semi-finals at the Worlds in Fukuoka, leaving the Split miseries behind.

And to set the tone here in Zagreb, they simply blew the Israelis away.

It wasn’t an even match in Split either when they also met on the opening day (in the ‘old system’) and the Serbs won 18-3 against the newcomers; 15 months later the match was even more lopsided.

The stats tell the story: it wasn’t the total number of shots taken which really showed the difference (35-16), but those on target: 31-5, a true sign of how serious the Serbs were in defence.

Israel could score its lonely goal from a penalty, 1:26 minutes from time in the third, at 15-0.

The other encounter in Zagreb brought a much more balanced battle – which was somewhat surprising as few expected Malta keeping up with the Germans for so long.

Defences ‘arrived’ to the pool eight minutes late, the first period saw 11 goals, the Germans led 6-5, but Malta could come back from 8-6 down and in the crazy finish before halftime, when three goals were scored in a span of 35 seconds, they held on for 9-9.

Trends started changing when German goalie Felix Benke, who had been substituted already in the first period but brought back for the second half, delivered a series of saves.

Stopping shots in back-to-back man-downs opened the door for the Germans who produced a 5-0 run after 10-10 and that decided the outcome.

They could keep that gap till the end of the match and this win might just as well secure them a chance for a crossover match with a first division rival.

Credit: European Aquatics

In Dubrovnik, Slovakia started off in a way a favourite should do, they stormed to a 5-2 lead against Slovenia in eight minutes.

However, the next eight minutes were anything but a favourite vs underdog battle.

Slovenia, now participating on its own right (in Split they could join the field after the suspension of the Russians), improved its defence while the Slovaks’ discipline dropped a bit, they had six major fouls (had none in the first quarter), and while they killed five man-downs, also failed to score in front, conceded a penalty goal so it stood 5-3 at halftime.

Deep into the third it was 5-5, with an extra and a penalty, then Marek Tkac halted his side bad run to score after 10:56 minutes for 6-5.

Three great saves by Tomas Hoferica in man-downs were instrumental at this phase as the Slovaks could rebuild a two-goal gap before the final period.

And in the fourth they rebuilt their game too, added four more goals to enjoy a stress-free finish.

Romania and the Netherlands had produced a thriller in Split, ending 12-12, so it was time for another big fight.

The Romanians caught the wave early on and even though the Dutch could come back from 1-3 to 3-3, soon they found themselves 4-6 down again and being forced into a chasing game.

For a while they could stay close, even after 5-8 they netted two in 63 seconds, however, towards the end of the third a man-up goal, then a fine 6m shot 24 seconds before the buzzer gave a 7-10 lead to Romania with eight minutes remaining.

And another 6m blast with a minute into the fourth, by Vlad Georgescu, expanded the gap to four goals, leaving no way back for the Netherlands.

In fact, they struggled in front, found the back of the net after more than eight minutes, while Romania did a clean job and bagged three very important points.