Spain makes back-to-back finals, Hungary goes to Tokyo
Spain and Hungary will stage a final showdown in Budapest after two magnificent semi-finals, which offered nothing less than the very best of water polo. Spain forced the Croats to play a chasing game and their rival couldn’t remain calm till the end, thus the Spaniards can play for the gold once more after Barcelona 2018 (just like their women’s team – and just like a year ago at the World Championships both Spanish team made the finals). Hungary joined them after a thrilling match in front of a sold-out crowd of 5,000 in the Duna Arena. Since Spain had already qualified for the Games last year, Hungary also booked its place in Tokyo with this win over Montenegro. It was a first-ever for them against the Montenegrins at the Europeans after four straight losses since 2008.
Men’s semi-finals: Spain v Croatia 9-8, Montenegro v Hungary 8-10. For places 5-8th: Italy v Russia 14-12, Serbia v Greece 12-9. For places 9-10th: Georgia v Germany 8-9. For places 11-12th: Turkey v Romania 3-20
Fixtures for Sunday Final (19.00): Hungary v Spain. Bronze (17.30): Montenegro v Croatia. For places 5-6th (16.00): Italy v Serbia. For places 7-8th (14.30): Russia v Greece
Spain did it again, reached final in the same ‘rough’ way as at the 2019 World Championships: beat the Serbs in the quarters, then Croatia in the semis. Add, that they also made the final two years ago in Barcelona so they will play their third gold medal match in a row at the majors.
The opening period featured ‘defences in work’, the goalies did a great job at both ends, only Marko Macan’s shot found the back of the net to give the Croats a 0-1 lead after eight minutes. The offences geared up in the second, compared to the first period the second offered a flood of seven goals. Spain grabbed the lead twice after 2-2 but the Croats had the answers so it stood 4- 4 at halftime.
The third was a mix of misses and great goals, Spain went ahead twice but their rivals managed to equalise again and again. Then the Croats had a manup but it was denied – so it was all tied (6-6) before the final period. It was somewhat visible though that the Spanish enjoyed more comfort as their Olympic berth had already been secured with that world silver 2019, the Croats were too tight in the crucial moments and the vibrant, brilliantly organised Spanish defence didn’t help them to ease up a bit either. Nor the happenings in front of their goal, as Alvaro Granados buried a man-up from the first possession so the Croats were still forced to chase their rivals. Maro Jokovic could finish off a 6 on 5 nicely for 7-7 but 20 seconds later Roger Tahull netted a magnificent goal from the centre.
And as the time started running out for the Croats, they got tighter and tighter. Spain missed a man-up to double their lead but David Lopez came up with his save No. 13 in a man-down and with 34 seconds to go Albert Munarriz’s one-timer from the distance sneaked in from Marko Bijac’s hand for 9-7 (VAR confirmed). Though Vukicevic pulled one back but it was too late with 20 seconds remaining on the clock – the fourth period drought of 5:24 minutes for the Croats cost them the match.
Just like in Gwangju, they lost by one goal to Spain, they also lost by one to Serbia in the World League final – and now again, a single goal separated them from making (or keeping the hope of making) the cut for Tokyo. Now they have one last chance in the Olympic Qualification Tournament in March.
Spain’s triumph turned the second semi into a direct qualifier for the Olympics. The Magyars faced a tough challenge as the shadows of the past haunted them a bit: Hungary had never beaten Montenegro at the Europeans (0/4) and two of those losses came in the semi-finals of the two January editions, in Eindhoven and in Belgrade.
As it was expected, a tense battle erupted right at the start, the first goal came after 4:15 minutes, Montenegro then doubled its lead before the hosts could get on the scoreboard after 6:04 minutes but the ‘visitors’ held on for 2-1 after eight minutes. Then Denes Varga began to let his magic fly, after three unsuccessful shots in the first, he sent the ball to the net from 7m with a magnificent back-handed shot which nearly brought the roof down. The Montenegrins kept their cool and retook the lead but soon the Magyar defence began to click and Viktor Nagy’s saves gave the extra fuel the home side needed. By halftime they were 3-4 ahead and even though a VARconfirmed goal brought the Montenegrins back to even, Tamas Mezei and Gergo Zalanki could finish two man-ups for 4-6. Stefan Pjesivac halved the distance but then Varga converted a penalty and Zalanki’s brilliant bouncing shot from 7m gave a 5-8 lead to the hosts – the goal was one of a kind but Zalanki’s block on the goal-line in the period-ending man-down seemed to be even more important.
Hungary then had a man-up to go +4 but wasted it, and even though Nagy delivered another save in a man-down, Bogdan Durdic’s put the next away with a pin-point shot for 6-8 with 4:10 to go. Hungary kept its composure, Marton Vamos blasted in the next 6 on 5 and Nagy posted saves No. 12 and 13 on Ivovic’s shots so the crowd went wild. However, it was not the end as the Montenegrins famous fighting spirit had never ceased and two goals in a span of 73 seconds gave them some hope at 8-9 though only 43 seconds were remaining. Hungary earned an extra 25 seconds from time but Montenegro applied the same tactics invented by the Hungarian women in London 2012, the goalkeeper also marked a field player to prevent free passing in the man-up. It seemed to work as Balazs Erdelyi’s lob on the empty goal was too short, but the Montenegrins long pass was caught by Vamos, he sent it back to Denes Varga who chipped in his fourth goal of the evening to break the Montenegrin curse and to secure Hungary’s place in Tokyo.
Hungary is back to the final after 2014 (once more in Budapest), this is going to be a first meet for the gold against Spain in the history of the Europeans – before they clashed for a title only once, at the World Championships in Perth 1998. Spain won that, next year Hungary claimed the European gold for the last time till date, while Spain’s men look for their first-ever European triumph (and they lost back-to-back finals in the last two years). We are yet to learn which team is the better as they finished 11-11 in the prelims.
The games played for the 5-8th places might influence the qualifications for the 2021 World Championships, and world title-holder Italy and Olympic champion Serbia didn’t let their respective matches go. Italy’s encounter was quite spectacular as the Russians never stopped coming back. They were 2-3- 4 goals down at certain stages of the match but with 2:03 to go they trailed by only one at 13-12 but Alessandro Velotto closed down the game with a man-up goal from the Settebello’s next possession.
Greece could keep up with the Serbs till the middle of the third then the titleholder – missing the top four for only the third time since 1947! – built a three-goal gap and that was enough to secure a consoling victory.
The lower placement matches might have an effect on the invitations for the Olympic Qualification Tournament (only four teams in the top 8 – Croatia, Montenegro, Greece and Russia have a secured spot, the rest of the field can hope to fill the vacant places left by the other continents). The match for the 9th place was a thrilling one, Georgia led 7-3 in the third and 8-7 in the fourth but the Germans netted two in 47 seconds and that gave them the desired 9th place. And a note on the match played for the 11th place: one of the finest centre-forwards of the past decade, Romania’s Cosmin Radu paid farewell to the European Championships on the occasion of their win over Turkey. His good-bye was a fitting one: 3 goals from 3 shots.