The first period was a load-and-shoot contest, the defences didn’t find the tools to stop the attackers – since both sides were supported by loud and numerous supporters, the eight minutes were pure entertainment for the outsiders. Brilliant goals were scored at both ends – the first seven came within 3:50 minutes, followed by a brief pause (in scoring), before the Dutch equalised again with Kitty Joustra’s great centre-shot – but Sofia Giustini immediately replied with a fine shot from the perimeter for 4-5.
Roberta Bianconi doubled Italy’s lead with another action goal, then Simona van der Kraats was also on target, but Bianconi hit the back of the net from a woman-up for 5-7. The Dutch pushed but lacked the precision at this time – once Sabrine van der Sloot saved her team by catching the ball on the line after Chiara Tabani lobbed it over the goalie, but Domitilia Picozzi’s finish couldn’t be stopped so Italy went 5-8 up, with 2:30 to go till the middle break. However, the Dutch suddenly regrouped themselves and made up for everything they missed earlier – in the last two minutes they netted two extras and van der Sloot blasted one from 8m in the dying seconds for 8-8.
And the Dutch carried on their momentum for the third period, despite Giustini’s action goal opened this quarter – soon van der Kraats and Sleeking hit two in 41 seconds and the Dutch led again. A block denied Bianconi in a 6 on 5, but later Giulia Vicava sent the ball home from action for 10-10. Sleeking put one more woman-up away and even though Caterina Bianchelli stopped Sleeking’s next shot, the rebound fell in the hand of Maartje Keuning who pushed it on from close for 12-10. As Italy missed their last extra in this period, the Dutch were the happier team – after 5-8 they produced a 7-2 run.
Though it only looked devastating – the Italians never gave in and after some great defending in the first woman-down in the fourth, they halved the distance by Bianconi’s sharp shot. What’s more, they really got going, within 1:24 seconds they had the lead, Giustini finished a two-on-one, then Bianconi hit her fourth from action for 12-13. Evangelos Doudesis called a time-out and that helped, Joustra scored a fabulous one from the centre for 13-13 and there was still 4:07 minutes to play.
The Dutch had then a 6 on 5, missed it badly. Italy had a 5 on 4 – the block denied them. Van der Sloot hit the post while Picozzi wasn’t marked properly, and she found the back of the net with a fine bouncer with 1:34 to go. The Dutch got a woman-up – and Italy’s head coach Carlo Silipo a red card for heavily criticising the call –, but a bad pass ruined it, and Italy had the ball 50 seconds to go. The Dutch head coach pushed the time-out button to force a penalty, hoping that the goalie may stop it. And Aarts could make a save, but only because van der Kraats almost jumped onto the shooter while it let the ball fly – the refs stopped the play, sent her out with substitution and the Italians could retake the shot. Now undisturbed, Bianconi buried, practically deciding the game with 58 seconds from time. The Dutch tried everything, but their shot was blocked, then even their goalie tried to mark an Italian, it didn’t work as Giustini could send the ball to the empty net for 13-16.
The Italians celebrated wildly – after going through several stages of disappointments in the past years (the biggest hit was missing the Tokyo Olympics), they could finally clinch a medal, the first since their silver in Rio 2016.
Evangelos Doudesis, coach, Netherlands
“We made some crucial mistakes in defence and in transition, that was the primary reason for our loss – and of course Italy fully deserved this win. This was a great game, a very nice game, with high intensity where the defences couldn’t do much. In fact the game didn’t look like as it was played at the end of a very long season. But if you ask me if this long season affected the performances, I have to ask back: why FINA and LEN couldn’t handle this better in order not to have such a long and tiring season?”
Carlo Silipo, coach, Italy
“We are really happy to win this medal, it was a fantastic performance from my players. They played with their heart but even more importantly, they played with their mind. For me, as a coach, the medal is not that important, but what matters how the team improved during the season and during this championship. I’ve been working with them for a year and what makes me really happy and satisfied that I see them developing.”
Simone van der Kraats, player, Netherlands
“It was a really close game. We gave everything in the water, but we lost the control of the match in some crucial moments. We need to control the game better.”
Sabrina van der Sloot, player, Netherlands
“Today they were the better team. We missed to score from many clear shots. We are better team than Italy, but today we didn’t show that.”
Valeria Palmieri, captain, Italy
“I am overjoyed! It was a great match and a great performance. All of us together gave our maximum today. All of us won this medal not as individuals, but as a team. We finally had an opportunity for a re match after the Worlds in Budapest. I am more than proud of each and every member of our team.”
Roberta Bianconi, player, Italy
“Thinking of this as a re-match of the Worlds Budapest bronze medal match was not the first thing in our heads. What was important for us to show what kind of team we are, what we are made of. Today we truly gave everything we had in us. We were united and we took what we deserved.”