Host Croatia beat Italy in a thrilling match to reach the final

Croatia v Italy 11-10 

Francesco di Fulvio kicked off the party with a 6m shot 29 seconds into the game – the reply came  immediately, Konstantin Kharkov sent the ball home from the first man-up. Mirroring extras followed – both went in, both times the ball got a wicked deflection on a blocking arm. Some great defending  followed, passes were stopped in man-downs, the goalies made stops on shots coming from the  perimeter. 

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Croatia got a 6 on 4 nearing the last minute, Jerko Marinic Kragic let the ball fly and it bounced in from  Marco del Lungo’s hand – while the other Marko, Bijac made the difference in the first period as he  denied Jacopo Aleasiani, though the Italians also played in 6 on 4.

Though Italy had a 6:20 minute-long silence after the two fast goals, Andrea Fondelli  quickly halted that phase with a great bouncer from the perimeter after just 20 seconds in the second.  Then again, the blocking hand fooled Del Lungo in a man-down at Marinic-Kragic’s shot. Bijac made a  save at the other end in a man-down, Del Lungo delivered a big one on Loren Fatovic’s blast. That was  crucial as the Croats missed their next extra as well, while Italy, with some luck, managed to go even  again, when Luca Marziali sent the ball home from close range, the ball fell to his hand after Bijac’s  save.  

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And soon they were ahead, di Fulvio had a clean shot in 5m in a man-up, for him, that’s even easier  than a penalty. Andria Basic responded with an action goal, the ball somehow sneaked in under the  goalie’s arm, then the Croats killed a man-down and Marinic Kragic netted his third from the right  wing, again from a 6 on 5 for 6-5, with 1:47 on the clock. Bijac posted his 7th save in a man-down inside  the last minute, and Marziali was red carded in the dying seconds for provokating his opponent, a big  blow for the Italians who played with one man less due to an earlier suspension (of Vincenzo Renzuto,  whose brutality went unnoticed against Montenegro, but not during a post-game review). 

Italy’s first extra was anything but a fine execution, unlike the Croats’ play which set up Marko Zuvela  on the 2m line and he managed to send the ball home while the defenders tried to hunt him down. It was  the first two-goal lead, so Alessandro Campagna rather went for a time-out before their next 6 on 5. It  didn’t help, Bijac made a save on di Fulvio’s shot, and Cannella hit the post after the rebound – though  Vincenzo Dolce didn’t miss the following one for 7-6. Soon it was 7-7, di Fulvio’s trademark 6m blast  did the damage – while the Croats’ level in offence dropped a bit. The Italians could have scored a third  one in a row, but the pass never found the finisher at the post in another man-up – while Rino Buric  scored a great one from action. 

That was a turning point again, Cannella fired the ball into Bijac from a 6 on 5 – while the other end the  Croats got a 6 on 5, which turned into a 6 on 4 (plus another red card for Edoardo di Somma for  gesturing on the referee), so Italy left with two substitutions and a two-goal deficit as Marinic Kragic  scored his fourth (the fans were loud as he is from Split). Andrea Fondelli gave back some hope with a  fine hit from a man-up so Italy trailed 9-8 before the final period but faced a huge challenge as the  Croats had two more substitutes to use (though two of them were fouled out already). 

Luca Damonte’s fine left-handed shot from action in the last second of the first possession silenced the  crowd – soon Italy lost another player, Fondelli, with a third exclusion, though they managed to kill the  Croats’ man-up. Bijac delivered a couple of saves on perimeter shots, then Nicosia did a huge stop on  Kharkov’s ball in a man-down, but after the corner-throw the Croats still managed to put the ball on  Basic’s hand whose one-timer sent his team ahead once more. Not for long, though, Italy also made the  most of their man-up, Lorenzo Bruni had an easy finish from close for 10-10, with 3:24 to go. Nicosia  posted two more stops, then Italy had a man-up, but Damonte was denied by the block. 

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With 1:35 to go, things went wild – a turnover was called against the hosts, but Fatovic jumped onto the  goalie’s hand holding the ball, to earn a penalty. Kharkov buried it – but Italy still had two more man ups, however, Bijac made a tremendous save in the first while the second was denied by a blocking hand once more. And that was it – an extraordinary end to an extraordinary match, the  Croats made the final for the first time since 2010. That was in Zagreb – for them home is really sweet. 

FLASH QUOTES

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Ivica Tucak, coach, Croatia 

“It was a very hard game. It was a victory of water polo today, and we won. Everybody from my team, the players, the staff, the coaches should be very proud because they did their job very well. Congrats to  everyone. Now we need to focus for the final game against a very big and strong team. I’m sure that we  want to win more than our opponent and we will show our best in the final.” 

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Alessandro Campagna, coach, Italy 

“It was a tough game. To play here in Croatia in the front of full stands, the home crowd – that was very  hard. I would like to congratulate to my players, I think they played very well. Nothing more to say.” 

Jerko Marinic Kragic, player, Croatia 

“I am literally out of myself! Still, the job is not finished yet. We now have a day rest but then it’s back  to business. We know fully well what is expected of us – the gold medal.” 

Marko Bijac, goalkeeper, Croatia 

“I honestly don’t know what to say… I am overwhelmed with the emotions. A huge thank you to all the  fans. Split has proved once again what a true sports city it is. I thank everybody from the bottom of my  heart. The medal is achieved, but our goal is the gold medal. The final against Hungary will be difficult, they have the best shooters. It will be very hard to close them off. Now we have to rest, get what  

happened tonight out of our heads and get ready for the final. With the help of this magnificent fans, we  can do it.” 

Andrea Fondelli, player, Italy 

“It was an amazing game in an amazing arena. We lost it by a penalty. I don’t want to say anything  about that. I am proud of my team, because with no players, we fought until the end. I am really proud  of them. In two days we are going to have another final. The bronze medal match against Spain and we  are going to be ready for that.”