Split reloaded: Croatia, Hungary, Italy and Spain make the semis

Hungary Jr’s miracle run continues as they ousted Serbia with a shootout win in the quarters. Spain soon joined them after a comfortable cruise against Romania, and Croatia also beat Greece with unexpected ease, thanks to a tremendous 8-0 run in the second half. Italy forced the decision even earlier against Montenegro, with a 5-0 demolition in the second period. This means the same four sides reached the semis as in Split 2022.

Quarter-finals: Hungary v Serbia 10-10, pen: 5-4; Spain v Romania 24-7, Croatia v Greece 13-8, Italy v Montenegro 14-8
Semi-finals: Hungary v Croatia, Spain v Italy

Credit: European Aquatics

A magnificent third period sent the title-holder Croatia to the semi-finals against the Greeks, who lost their composure in the second half as the hosts began to fly, fuelled by the thousands packed in the stands.

An action-packed opening period got this explosive contest started right away, with three goals apiece as the teams didn’t hold back anything once the first whistle was blown.

After an early exchange of goals in the second, defences took over and four minutes of grand battling followed before Ante Vukicevic’s fine shot from the perimeter broke the deadlock.

But the Greeks hit back with two within the last 50 seconds, from a penalty and a counter to silence the crowd and make it 5-6.

Luka Loncar’s powerful centre-move lifted the hosts’ spirits, followed by a great save from birthday boy Marko Bijac (33 today) in a man-down.

Soon, Jerko Marinic-Kragic’s deflected shot gave the lead back to the home side and since the Greeks’ offence was slowing down, the Croatian defence could get full control.

With their rivals constantly bouncing back from the wall, it was no wonder they could increase the gap before the break.

Credit: European Aquatics

Vukicevic’s fine shot from the wing in a man-up doubled their lead and Marinic-Kragic buried a penalty 47 seconds from time for 9-6.

It soon turned out that the Greeks couldn’t stop their downward slide, while the hosts were flying high, adding four more goals in 4:30 minutes while their defence held firm for three man downs.

Indeed, the world championship silver medallists were yet to score in the second half, which they finally did with 2:22 to go, when it had already been over at 13-6.

In fact, it was a 15:38 minute run by Croatia, an 8-0 blast which sealed their spot in the semis.

A bit surprisingly, or perhaps not any longer, they will face Hungary next.

“We were controlling the game, good defence, we had confidence, but then we started the third period really very strange,” admitted Greece coach Theodoros Vlachos after the defeat.

“We lost everything, our minds, we couldn’t score for almost two quarters. We did score two at the very end, but by then it was already finished.

“This is something we have to work on, as I don\’t know how to explain it. Croatia deserved the win, of course.

“It was a great game, played in a great atmosphere, but we didn’t enjoy it. Not because we lost, but because we lost in this way.”

Credit: European Aquatics

The Magyars fielded once more their youngest thirteen as their No 1. centre-forward and most experienced player Balazs Harai felt sick hours before the game and had to be replaced with another 20-year-old, Erik Molnar.

However, Hungary Jr. seemed to be ready for any challenge, including a quarter-final against Serbia which brought back a couple of more experienced greats and now lined up with six Olympic champions from Tokyo.

It was as close as possible, never in the game the gap was more than a single goal and the lead was changing constantly.

The opening period ended in 3-3 – for a while, the Serbs put away their man-ups, but they were denied in a 6 on 4.

Credit: European Aquatics

Then Dusan Mandic buried a penalty in the second, the Serbs killed man-downs, once a double, and seemed to get some control.

Then the Magyars did the same, forced a penalty in a man-up, killed a man-down, Vendel Vigvari hit one from a counter and the control shifted immediately.

Hungary could have doubled its lead a couple of times, but missed their chances and Nemanja Ubovic used an error to equalise before halftime.

The third offered even more thrills, the other Vigvari sibling, Vince, was on fire, helping Hungary take the lead twice, but the Serbs had a better spell and went in front at 7-8 with two minutes remaining.

Still, Hungary Jr. wasn’t afraid a bit, as David Tatrai hit his third from a 6 on 5 and Vince Vigvari added another one with 0.07 on the clock, so Hungary led 9-8 before the final quarter.

Another rare one-on-one brought Serbia back to even early in the fourth, then came five minutes of hard battling.

The young lightweights could barely penetrate the strong defensive wall, but the Serbs were also tired in the never-ceasing swimming contest, propelled to the highest possible speed by the Hungarians.

With 1:49 to go, the Serbs could finally put away a nicely played man-up after a time-out, Nemanja Vico was set up on 2m for 9-10.

Still, the Magyars had the answer just 27 seconds later, a magnificent one-timer from the perimeter, by Vince Vigvari, it was his fourth.

The assist came from fellow U20 world champ Tatrai, the two ‘kids’ landed seven of Hungary’s 10 goals, quite a feat in such a prestigious quarterfinal.

After the Hungarian defence killed another man-down, the two young guns were both picked for the shootout, where the Magyars buried all five shots while a dramatic error from Marko Radulovic – he dropped the ball before the shot, a miss by default – decided the outcome.

Credit: European Aquatics

“We didn\’t give 100%, for sure,” commented Serbia head coach Uros Stevanovic after the game.

“In the last game, we played against France with power, with aggression, with everything, but today we missed a lot.

“First of all, I want to congratulate Hungary. They fought from the beginning, they swam very hard, they weren’t afraid, they wanted to win, and I think they deserved to win.

“Quarter final is the quarter final, this is a big competition, there is always a little bit more tension and everything, maybe it was that, but for sure this was not our maximum.”

A jubilant Hungary coach Zsolt Varga was more than pleased with his team’s performance.

“I think today my team played with a full heart,” he said after the victory.

“I\’m so, so proud of them, because they have produced another miracle in this European Championships.

“I think the odds were against us also today, and we went out one more time and defied those odds.”  

Credit: European Aquatics

Finishing atop in Dubrovnik brought its reward for Spain, an easy match against Romania where the players had ticked their main job in the previous evening by ousting Georgia in the crossovers.

The Spaniards didn’t put their foot off the gas, setting a high pace right from the beginning and that was way too much for their rivals to handle.

Spain stopped at 24, which was even a single-game scoring record at these Europeans and probably in the history of quarter-finals.

31 of their 35 shots were on target, Romania was 14 from 18 in this category, so no wonder that the difference was huge – especially in the second half when Spain netted seven goals in both periods against its exhausted opponents.

Credit: European Aquatics

The last of the quarter-finals also lacked the expected thrills as the Italians’ speed and intensity was too much for Montenegro from the second period on.

At the beginning, it was an even game, where the Montenegrins could take a 3-4 lead after eight minutes, by putting away their man-ups after fine set-ups.

Trends changed and they changed a lot in the second when Italy gradually increased the speed and towards the second part of the period their high-octane game left their rivals completely stranded.

Edoardo di Somma equalised first, from action, then in the following minutes the Italians killed two man-downs which set them on fire.

After three minutes of intense battling, the Italians were all set to conquer.

They denied the Montenegrins in three more 6 on 5s, di Somme hit two more from action, then Fondelli buried a man-up, three seconds from time – this 5-0 run did enough damage.

Credit: European Aquatics

Montenegro pulled one back from a penalty from its first possession, but Francesco di Fulvio replied from a last-second rocket from action and soon the Italian defence took the upper hand again.
Indeed, they were a lot higher in the back, than the Montenegrins, offered perfect cover and Marco del Lungo also delivered fine saves, like another two in man-downs.

Between the two, Gonzalo Echenique finished off a counter and di Somma fired his fourth, again from action to make it 11-5.

The 8-1 demolishing in the middle two periods put the game to bed.

Though the Montenegrins had a late surge and netted back-to-back goals then called a time-out, but Fondelli’s action goal 17 seconds adrift killed the rivals’ momentum right away.

The Italians showed their real character and set up another Mediterranean duel with Spain in the semis.