Shootout day in Dubrovnik, with Montenegro and Croatia the lucky ones

Credit: European Aquatics

The European Water Polo Championships got off to a flying start as both Group A matches ended in a thrilling shootout. The Montenegrins and Croatians bagged two points in Group A, at the expense of France and Spain respectively. In Zagreb, Italy thrashed Georgia and Greece fought off the young Hungarians.

Group A (Dubrovnik): Montenegro v France 10-10, pen: 10-9; Spain v Croatia 9-9, pen: 3-5.

Group B (Zagreb): Georgia v Italy 5-22, Hungary v Greece 8-10

One could hardly imagine a more thrilling start to the Europeans after what the opening day had to offer in Dubrovnik.

It was the perfect reinforcement for the introduction of the two-division format as both matches were tight, exciting, offered twists and turns, but no decision in regular time, so it all came down to shootouts.

France stunned Montenegro by scoring three in a row in the last two minutes of the first period to take a 2-4 lead.

They missed a penalty which would have given them a three-goal advantage, instead, the Montenegrins climbed back to 4-5 by half-time.

Soon they were 6-5 up, hitting two in a mere of 19 seconds inside the first minute of the third, and kept up for 7-6 for long, before the French, despite missing a couple of extras, could equalise for 7-7.

After a quick exchange of goals, it was France again who got the better breaks, Ugo Crousillat put away a man-up, then Thomas Vernoux hit his fourth from action to make it 8-10 with 4:27 on the clock.

However, the Montenegrins didn’t let it go and with two finely played man-up goals, they came back to even once again.

No more goals came in the last two minutes – but a lot more was scored in the shootout.

Over nine rounds, everyone hit the back of the net, then Crousillat’s ball was saved by Petar Tesanovic, and Aleksa Ukropina buried the 20th shot to win the match for Montenegro.

Credit: European Aquatics

The top match of the day between Croatia and Spain was even more thrilling.

The Spaniards were struggling at the beginning, only hitting their first just 25 seconds before the end of the opening period, while the hosts, backed by a noisy, capacity crowd already went 1-3 up deep into the second quarter.

Soon, the world bronze medallists found their rhythm, or better to say they were flying above the water as they hit five goals in a span of 3:30 minutes to lead 6-4 at half-time.

It was obvious if they could keep that pace, the Croats would end up losing this encounter – and after the third period they were still trailing by two (8-6).

However, their rivals couldn’t hold on, their offence dropped to the level of the first period, the Croats put away two 6 on 5s to level the score at 8-8.

Marc Larumbe broke the silence from a 6 on 5, but the reply came immediately, by Loren Fatovic, for 9-9.

Both sides could have won it in the remaining five minutes, the title-holders missed three man-ups, Spain’s extra was gone with a 2m violation, so it was time for the penalties again.

And one save from Marko Bijac was enough for the Croats to grab two crucial points – he denied Granados, while all five home shooters were on target.

Credit: European Aquatics

The encounters in Zagreb offered a little less excitement, especially the first match between Italy and Georgia.

The Italians played with clinical precision and left no chance for the underdogs – awkwardly, three Georgian goals came in the last three minutes, after 3-20, when Italy played a constant 6 on 5 after a brutality call.

The second match was a lot tighter, even though the clash of Greece and Hungary was only a rematch of the World Championship final on paper – in reality, the Magyars brought a very young team to the event, leaving seven key players at home.

Still, the youngsters made the top Greek players’ life unexpectedly difficult – they put up a hell of a fight, held the Greeks 2 for 12 in man-ups for three periods and trailed 6-7 before the final quarter.

There, the experience made the difference, the Greeks used all the mistakes of the Magyars, forced two penalties and netted a fine man-up goal to lead by three for the first time late in the fourth and that secured them a win after all, though their head coach Theodoros Vlachos was anything but happy at the end of the match.