Water polo (W) day 5 - Newcomer Spain to meet experienced USA in battle for first Olympic gold medal

London 2012 Water Polo

Spain and the USA will meet on Thursday to challenge for the gold medal at the London 2012 women's Olympic tournament. These two teams tied at 9-9 when they met last week in the preliminary round. Spain is making its first appearance in the women's Olympic tournament whereas it's the fourth consecutive appearance for the USA in the medal round and the third time the USA is playing for the gold medal, something that has eluded the team.  

USA veterans Brenda Villa (USA) and Heather Petri (USA) will enter the record books as four time Olympic medallists on Thursday. The US veteran players are seeking their first Olympic gold medal to go with two silver and one bronze medals they already own. The USA was second to Australia in Sydney 2000 and silver medallists again in Beijing 2008 losing to the Netherlands, 8-9.

A rematch of the 2008 Olympic bronze medal match is also slated for Thursday. In Beijing four years ago the Australian team won the bronze medal in a penalty shootout with Hungary, 12-11. Australia won the first women's water polo Olympic gold medal in the 2000 Sydney Games. 

Italy will face Great Britain to determine which team finishes in 7th place. China will meet Russia with the winner earning 5th place in the tournament.


USA defeat Australia to advance to gold medal final match

High drama preceded USA women's 11-9 extra time semi-final victory over Australia. The USA will play for an Olympic gold medal, the third time since the inclusion of women's water polo in the Olympic Games.

The USA was ahead 9-8 and only one second on the clock in regulation time when USA head coach Adam Krikorian called for a timeout. As the USA did not have possession of the ball, play was stopped as the referee deemed the USA's request to be an illegal timeout. The two referees had a discussion and conferred with FINA officials to confirm their decision to award a penalty shot to Australia. Ash Southern (AUS) converted for her fourth goal and forced the game into extra-time.

The match was just as close as the finish. Australia started things off with a power play goal from Southern (AUS) a little over two minutes into the match for a 1-0 lead. They followed with a goal less than a minute later for a 2-0 lead. The USA got on the board with 1:30 to play in the period when Courtney Mathewson (USA) delivered on the power play for a 2-1 game. Lauren Wenger (USA) followed on the next possession with a shot that ricocheted off the goalie's hand, off the crossbar, and then back off the goalie's head and into the cage for a 2-2 game. Australia drew a penalty on their next possession and converted for a 3-2 lead. That was followed by Wenger (USA) who came free with two seconds left in the period, evening the match at 3-3 headed to the second quarter.

In the second, USA struck first when Melissa Seidemann (USA) found the cage at the 5:26 mark for a 4-3 lead. Australia answered seconds later on another goal from Southern (AUS) for a 4-4 game. Maggie Steffens (USA) came calling on the very next possession with a power play goal for a 5-4 lead. She followed that up moments later with a lob shot for a 6-4 score in favour of the United States. Australia rebounded with a goal on their next possession to close within 6-5. The USA had a chance to rebuild a two goal lead when Annika Dries (USA) drew a penalty, but Brenda Villa (USA) failed to convert and it remained a one goal game at halftime.

The third period was a defensive battle with each side scoring just once. Maggie Steffens (USA) broke through first with a goal out of two meters for a 7-5 lead with 2:49 remaining in the period. Less than a minute later Australia responded with a power play score for a 7-6 game as play moved to the fourth. Three minutes into the fourth period it was Jessica Steffens (USA) connecting on a power play for an 8-6 lead. Over the next three minutes Australia roared back with two straight power play goals, evening the game at 8-8 with 2:14 left. Seidemann answered the call for the USA with 1:40 left, hitting on a power play for a 9-8 lead. That led to the closing seconds of regulation where Australia was able to tie the game on the penalty and force overtime.

The USA dominated the first overtime period, keeping Australia off the board and posting two goals. Maggie Steffens (USA) hit the first score on a power play to grab the lead. Then with just three seconds left Kami Craig (USA) connected out of two metres for an 11-9 lead. The two teams neutralised each other in the second and final overtime period, but the damage had been done by the United States as they claimed the 11-9 win and a berth in the final. 

The United States went five for 11 on power plays and zero for one on penalties while Australia was four for seven on power plays and two for two on penalties. Southern (AUS) led the Aussies in scoring with four goals. It was the fifth Olympic clash between the USA and Australia. Australia finished on top twice in 2000 (7-6 in the rounds and 4-3 in the final) while the USA won the 2004 Athens bronze medal match 6-5 and the Beijing semi-final 9-8.  

Australia won the first women's water polo Olympic gold medal in the 2000 Sydney Games. In Beijing four years ago they won the bronze medal in a penalty shootout with Hungary. Tuesday's semi-final was Australia's second consecutive game to go to extra-time following the 20-18 penalty shootout quarterfinal win over China on Sunday.

Maggie Steffens (USA) scored four times, including the go-ahead goal in the first overtime, to push the United States to the victory. Goalkeeper Betsey Armstrong (USA) posted 11 saves in net as Australia was held scoreless in both overtime periods. USA veterans Brenda Villa (USA) and Heather Petri (USA) will enter the record books as four time Olympic medallists on Thursday. Each are seeking their first Olympic gold medal to go with two silver and one bronze medals they already own.

Australian head coach Greg McFadden (AUS) said: "I don't know whether we were lucky, because we deserved a penalty 15 seconds earlier so it was a kind of justice, and we got a lifeline. But America were too good, too strong and they did what they needed to win in extra time. Any loss is devastating in a semi-final, but losing to America is no embarrassment. They were the most consistent in this Olympic cycle. They have rarely been beaten and today they were too good for us. The girls who are here for their first Olympics came with the same aim. It's sad for everyone (that we lost today). We had an emotional game against China (on Sunday Australia beat China in an extra time match that also finished with a penalty shootout) and it took a lot of energy out of us. It's tough to have to do that again, especially against the USA. I'm proud of the girls, they showed great character."

Australian player Ash Southern shared her thoughts after today's loss: "It's pretty devastating after four years of hard work. We never gave up, but it just wasn't there at the end. Credit to the USA, they put up a very good fight. We weren't expecting the penalty. It was another life for us and with the extra-time it gave us another chance, but we were just so tired at the end." Her teammate Rowie Webster was extremely disappointed: "We just gave away a gold medal. They (USA) are definitely our biggest rivals, we match up well together. It was a very fast, physical game and they're the big shots who everyone wants to beat. That is what we train for, but they were better on the day. With one second to go there was always hope we didn't lose any faith. We got a second opportunity. There were really two strong teams out there, but today wasn't our day."

Adam Krikorian (USA) explained the fall out from the time-out he called for when USA didn't have the ball in the final second. "It was my fault, it was a bad decision. I thought Betsey Armstrong had the ball. Everything happened so quickly, but it was a big mistake on my part and it could have cost us the game. Sometimes the coach can let you down and the players need to pick you up. Thankfully they did that today." On what he was thinking when he realised his mistake: "I was feeling horrible. It went through my mind that I might have blown it. But I said to my players that this is not going to stop us."

Melissa Seidemann (USA) on playing against Australia in the semi-final: "I knew it was going to be a tight game, but I also believe that every team is really tough in the semis." Kami Craig (USA) on what happened in the last second of normal time (when Australia were awarded a penalty): "Who knows, who cares? We were ready to play overtime. We practice for these high-pressure situations."

Lauren Wenger (USA) on Australia: "There is great rivalry with them. They bring it, we bring it. It's always going to be a great game."


Spain knocks Hungary into bronze medal match

Spain booked a gold-medal date with FINA world cup champions United States after beating Hungary 10-9 in the second women's semi-final day. It sets up an enthralling encounter between two teams who drew 9-9 in group play and says a lot about Spain's emergence on the world stage in 2012. 

For Spain, it will be a chance to win the Olympic crown at their first appearance. Spain led 2-1 at the quarter and changed at half-time 7-5 ahead after a period in which Anni Espar (ESP) scored her second and third goals and Hungary dropped in the last two after being four down. Espar nailed her fourth to take Spain into the fourth period 9-7 ahead and Maica Garcia (ESP) made it 10-7 on extra-man advantage with four minutes remaining. Hungary pulled one back at 2:29 and another in the last second, but Spain were never seriously threatened, being in control throughout with excellent passing, defence and shooting skills.

Spanish assistant coach Jordi Valls might not be on the bench for the final, having gained a red card midway through the final quarter. Spanish head coach Miguel Oca, who missed the quarterfinal because of suspension, had the team working slickly and his hopes must be to win the final and attain the rare distinction of winning gold as a player (Atlanta 1996) and as a coach. Spain struggled on the man-up situations, converting only two from 14 chances. Hungary scored four from 13. 

Hungarian head coach Andras Meresz (HUN) on conceding two or three goals at the beginning of matches: "Some said how brave and tough the girls were to come back against China and against Russia to win those matches. They are brave, but I asked them if we could try to go in front this time? You cannot count on always coming back as quality teams will not let the match slip out of their hands." On what went wrong today: "We lacked precision in attack. Both teams rely heavily on their centre forwards, they earned a series of exclusions from that position, while I couldn't recall a single pass which perfectly fed the centre forward today." On whether the two teams are at the same level as USA and Australia (the other two semi-finalists): "These two teams (Spain and Hungary) are built for the future, most of the players are embarrassingly young to play in Olympic semi-finals, and both teams have performed way above our real levels."

Hungarian player Rita Dravucz (HUN) on the result: "Not good. I am so sorry for this game. We could have done better." On what they need to do to win bronze: "We want bronze and we will talk about the next match and take it from there." Hungarian teammate Orsolya Takacs (HUN) shared her thoughts after the match: "Spain have never lost in the Olympics, so we knew it was going to be a hard match. We couldn't get past them. We had a lot of missed chances today and we have to learn from our mistakes." On the bronze-medal match: "We have one more match and we have to win. We are not going to give up."

Spanish head coach Miguel Oca (ESP) on being in the gold medal game against USA on Thursday:

"I'm so happy, very happy. Did we expect it? I don't know, we had a very good Olympic qualification tournament and we were thinking we could do something here as well." On whether Spain is becoming a world power after winning the junior 2011 World championships and reaching the final of London 2012: "I don't know, that is for other people to say. At the moment, we are junior world champions and Olympic finalists." Spanish player Roser Tarrago (ESP) on how it feels being in the final: "It was our aim at the beginning of the tournament, but the job is not done yet, we still have one game to win." On where there were any nerves towards the end of the game: "In the last four minutes we didn't attack, but we were told to calm down, and at the end we knew we had done it." Her teammate Jennifer Pareja (ESP) on how they reached the final: "We wanted to play and win every match and we've done it. We were hoping to win and I'm so happy we've achieved it." On their prospects in the final: "It will be very hard as USA is a very good team, but we will fight to win."


China knocks over Italy on path to play for 5th place

China moved into the play-off for 5th place with a 14-10 victory over Italy in a 5th-8th semi-final women's match this Tuesday. Italy, the Athens 2004 Olympic champions had no answer to the Chinese attack that caused so many problems for Australia in Sunday's quarterfinals.

China worked early extra-man chances, making Italy pay for heavy fouling and led 5-2 at the quarter, 10-4 at half-time and 12-6 at the last break. Italy relied heavily on the shooting prowess of Athens 2004 gold medallist Tania Di Mario, who converted two penalty goals, and two extra-man plays for four goals and 10 for the tournament. Fellow gold medallist, goalkeeper Elena Gigli had a poor first half in goal and was replaced at three-quarter time by stand-in head coach Alexandra Araujo. Regular head coach Fabio Conti (ITA) was sitting out due to a suspension.

China's strength was quality shooting, especially from the deep-left-wing position. Six players scored twice for China, with Ma Huanhuan's two giving her 10 for the championship. China have played their best two games in succession, but will only get to play for 5th while Italy will play for 7th. Both teams converted three from nine on man-up situations.

Italian head coach Fabio Conti (ITA) on his disappointment of being defeated by China: "It is not easy to play this part of the tournament but, in the sporting life, you should be happy when you win and try to be positive when you lose. Before the London Olympic Games we were thinking that we might win the gold, but also that we could be last. That is how the tournament went on. After the Olympics we will discuss a new programme. Our players are European champions and the outcome of this tournament is just unfortunate for us." Assistant coach Monica Vaillant (ITA) offered: "It was the best we could do knowing we weren't playing for a medal. The match hasn't been as good as we thought, but we reacted well throughout the whole game. We played with less energy than expected. Throughout the whole tournament we played with less energy and this is why we didn't get a chance for a medal. In this match we tried to catch up with the Chinese, you could see that at the end of the match. Still, we were playing with regrets of having no medal chance." 

Chinese head coach Juan Jane (ESP) on bouncing back from the bitter loss to Australia in the quarters (in a penalty shootout): "The players were really low yesterday morning, but we had meetings, training and they started to come up. I'm happy with my players' mentality." On whether going for the fifth place is a disappointment after last year's world championships silver medal: "Many people in China dreamed of a medal, preferably the gold. But everyone has to understand that you cannot stand on the podium all the time. It depends on many things. Before this, we lost our last three matches by one goal to top ranked opponents. One goal is about being a little lucky or unlucky. We had bad luck. Still, I'm proud of my team, as they played face-to-face matches with the best teams in the world."

Player Ma Huanhuan (CHN) on missing out on the medals: "It is a pity as it was our dream to win the gold or to get to the final. Every game we put in as much effort as we can. In the first game, when we played against the Spanish (which they lost 11-6), we were very nervous so we didn't play very well, but for the games after that, we tried our best."


Russia drops Great Britain to advance to classification final against China

Russia had to come from behind five times to beat Great Britain 11-9 in a round 5-8 women's semifinal at the Water Polo Arena on Tuesday. Great Britain proved worthy of Olympic participation and the ability to go ahead so many times shows they are the next biggest team on the world stage. The game was locked at 3-3 after the first quarter while Great Britain had a 5-4 half-time advantage.

Great Britain twice went ahead in the crucial third period but Russian perseverance and two late goals gave them an 8-7 lead. Great Britain came within one at 9-8 and 10-9 and pressing to level inside the final four minutes. 

It was not to be as Russian captain Sofya Konukh scored her third goal in nine minutes with a long-range shot from inside halfway and near the side of the pool for 11-9. Ekaterina Prokofyeva (RUS) scored three of her four goals in the first half. Great Britain's best were Francesca Snell and Chloe Wilcox with three each.

Great Britain may not have won the game but proved superior on extra-man attack with four goals from 10 attempts compared to Russia's two from 10. Russia goes to the 5-6 play-off and Great Britain to the 7-8 decider.

Great Britain head coach Szilveszter Fekete (GBR) on losing a tight match to Russia for the second time in the tournament: "It was similar to the one we played with Russia on the opening day and we had the chances in the last minutes again. We lost this one earlier when we missed a couple of great opportunities, but we could not finish man-ups from two metres." On their progress in the past five years: "In 2007 we lost our first international match to the Netherlands 21-1. We have come a long way since then, especially when you see we have played a close match with a strong opponent such as Russia."

Rosie Morris (GBR) on what the team are lacking: "People forget that these teams are so much more experienced. I don't know mentally if we have got it yet." On their prospects against Italy for 7th place:

"Our aim (at the start of the tournament) was to win a game or two. We've shown that we're not just a wildcard, we're up there with the top teams, and if we play well we can win." Teammate Angie Winstanley-Smith (GBR) on another close defeat by the Russians: "It's gutting. The first game with them was so close, and to come so close again is hard to take, especially with the support. We want to win a match for them."

On the support of the GB fans: "I am a bit of a joker in the team, but I manage to get quite serious before a game. But when you see that (support), I can't help but smile. It makes it really special."

Russian head coach Alexander Kabanov (RUS) on how difficult it was to play against Great Britain: "It was difficult psychologically after the defeat in the quarter-final against Hungary. It was difficult to change direction. We have played some part of the match very good, some of it very bad." On whether he will find a way to motivate his team to play for fifth place: "We'll be searching for motivation."

Russian player Sofya Konukh (RUS) on whether they were surprised with how close the match was: "No, because Great Britain are improving from game to game, especially with the support of the crowd." On whether there is anything they need to improve on for the next game: "Of course. Our defence in man-ups. They are a crucial part of the game." 



SCHEDULE FOR THURSDAY, AUGUST 9th   

14:30  Classification Round for 7th & 8th place:  ITA - GRB

15:50  Classification Round for 5th & 6th place:  CHN - RUS

18:40  Bronze Medal Match:  AUS - HUN

20:00  Gold Medal Match:  USA - ESP