Gergely Csurka, FINA Media Committee

After a couple of big beatings last year, Hungary stroke back to beat the Italians in the first semi-final of the World League Europa Cup finals in Zagreb. The Magyars came from behind to clinch the game 12-11 while offering some of their usual magic. They will face Croatia which managed to outpower Spain in the closing minutes, netting the last three goals of the game after 9-9. This sets up a re-match of the 2017 World Championship final. While the finalists already booked their spots in the Super Final, the battle for the bronze between Italy and Spain is going to be a crucial clash as only the winner can make the trip to Belgrade. In the matches played for the 5-8th place, Montenegro downed Russia with ease while Serbia overcame Greece in the second half, so the two powerhouses will battle for the 5th place on Sunday.

After suffering two huge defeats in 2018 – their embarrassing 5-12 loss was the biggest ever in the 82-year European Championships’ history –, Hungary was regarded a bit of an underdog against the Italians. And even though the Magyars did a fine job against Montenegro, shortly before the game they lost their first centre-forward Balazs Harai due to injury, which seemed to have weakened their line-up. 

Hungary's Krisztian Manhercz did something extraordinary before scoring the winning goal - Photos: Dino Ninkovic

However, they showed their best to compensate this and offered some sparkling attacking water polo with lot of movements and fast swimming. The Italians still seemed to be the dominant side but as the Magyars kept coming back continuously, they somewhat lost their edge at both ends, missed a couple if fine opportunities while they couldn’t prevent their rivals from making the most of their chances.

It was a game of twists and turns, Italy led 4-6 and 6-8 but the Magyars could level the score both times, and towards the end of the third they could take the lead for the first time, thanks to a double netted in a span of 22 seconds. Italy missed a penalty early in the fourth and the Magyars soon went 11-9 up with Denes Varga magical shot (he got his second MVP award in two days) but now the Settebello could strike back to go even with 1:46 remaining. However, a brilliant individual effort from Krisztian Manhercz 58 seconds from time won the game for Hungary. 

Croatia staged a great finish to beat Spain in a tremendously heated battle. The world champions seemed to be dominating the game, however, the European silver medallists stayed close for most of the time. In fact, they had a great start and took a 2-0 lead but soon the hosts geared up and turned the cards to go 3-5 up.  

Maro Jokovic's left hand made the difference at the end – he was a rightful choice for the MVP award

The Spaniards responded well and brought the match back to even by half-time (5-5) and from that point it was a balanced game. The Croats went ahead three times in the third but the Spaniards always offered a fine answer so it was still equal before the last period (8-8). There another exchange of goal promised a thrilling finish but after 9-10 the Spaniards failed to convert their 6 on 5 and an immediate punishment from Loren Fatovic (counter, penalty, goal) virtually closed down the contest, he then added one more so Croatia had a 3-0 rush in the final three minutes while Spain was unable to score in the last 6:23 minutes.

Capacity crowd in the second day of the finals, as usual

In the games played for the 5-8th places, Montenegro was clearly the better side against Russia, they scored a handful of nice goals while setting a single-game scoring record so far in this weekend by stopping at 15 goals.Greece could keep up with the Serbs until half-time when it was all even (8-8), but in the second half the Olympic champion side tightened its defence and allowed two more goals for the Greeks and restored some pride after their surprising defeat in the quarters.

The Greeks tried hard but the Serbien defence improved a lot for the second half

Schedule for Sunday

Final

20.15 Hungary v Croatia

Bronze medal match

18.30 Italy v Spain

For places 5-6th

16.45 Montenegro v Serbia

For places 7-8th

15.00 Russia v Greece