Reigning champion Serbia fired on all cylinders as it routed Greece 13-6 on the opening day in Podgorica, Montenegro. Italy stunned Croatia 8-6, Spain tumbled Hungary 10-9 and Montenegro had to come back from 5-2 down to fend off a late-charging France 11-10. This means that Greece, Hungary and Croatia have no chance of qualifying for the Super Final to be staged in Strasbourg, France in late July. France pre-qualifies as the host nation.
15:00 Hungary v Greece
17:00 France v Croatia
19:00 Montenegro v Italy
21:00 Spain v Serbia
CROATIA 6 ITALY 8
Croatia is not the team of old and likewise has a newer look. It’s all about settling into a style ahead of the FINA World Championships and the European titles later in the year. This was a match that both coaches liked as a part of the build-up.
Italy was the frontrunner throughout, going 4-1 up later in the second quarter, turning at 5-2, increasing the margin to 7-2 at the final break and had to watch as Croatia put on a display for a 4-1 final quarter.
Both coaches felt the wrath of the referees. Ivica Tucak (CRO) gained his yellow card in the second quarter, disputing a driving Matteo Iocchi-Gratta goal and Alessandra Campagna (ITA) complaining about a second snap extra-man goal from Josip Vrlic for 7-5.
Giacomo Cannella, enjoying his first visit to the top table, scored twice for Italy from deep left on an extra-man attack and from the top with a screamer for 6-2. Gonzalo Echenique book-ended the match scoring, his slider from deep right at 0:27 sending his team into raptures. Ante Vukicevic could have been the only double scorer for Croatia but sent his penalty attempt across the bar at 5-2 down.
From 1-1 at the quarter, Italy took full control and closed the half at 7-2, an insurmountable position. Croatia switched on in the fourth and scored four unanswered goals, but it was not enough to level or win the match.
Stats don’t lie
Croatia relied totally on the extra-man attack for its goals, converting six from 14 attempts while Italy’s rate was worse at four from 15, proving Croatia had an excellent man-down defence. Croatia’s one missed penalty could have proved crucial.
It’s a big year and it comes after an Olympics, so the results could be anything at this stage. Head coach Alessandro Campagna was blazé about the result in the mixed zone but would have to be happy that it came so easily.
What they said
Sandro Campagna (ITA) — Head Coach
“I don’t remember an easy game with Croatia in my life, in the 40 years we have been playing against (them). What do I feel? I feel good, but not because of the result. This is the last thing I am caring about.
This is the beginning; the road is long. We have some huge days in front of us. I look for the attitude of the players, the way they train, the way they are concentrating in every moment. I told them before the match, I don’t care about the result; But we are to play right, to play well, minute by minute. We did some good things, some mistakes. We will analyse and continue.”
Jure Marelja (CRO) — Assistant Coach
“It was tough; it was tough for both teams. We played well, but with some loss of concentration and aggression in our attack gave us this kind of result. We are not unhappy with everything we saw today.
We saw good defence in our team, we saw a few good moves, but in the end, we cannot be satisfied with a loss.” Motivations for the next two days: “The motivation comes from the summer. We see this as preparation for this summer and we’ve included a lot of young players, so this has been a great experience for them.”
HUNGARY 9 SPAIN 10
Olympic bronze medallist Hungary stumbled after being 9-8 ahead two minutes into the final quarter, losing 10-9 to Spain. Spain had a 4-1 quarter-time lead, trailed 6-5 at halftime and 8-7 a the final break, levelled at 8-8 and 9-9 and then scored the winner at 3:19.
Marton Vamos was on the rampage with his four goals, scoring three from action and the last on extra-man attack. His third came off a cross drive at four metres, utilising his left arm to excellent effect. Alberto Munarriz chipped in when needed most, scoring three goals in the second half, including the clincher from a pop pass to his centre -forward position. His first two were classic six-metre goals, taking the foul and quickly shooting before the defence was ready.
Three straight goals to close the first quarter had Spain in an excellent position at 4-1. Hungary then made it 4-1 the other way for 5-5 and Vamos’ third strike had the match in Hungary’s favour — 8-7. The final and telling turning point, was Munnarriz’s final goal after having to come back twice to level.
Stats don’t lie
Man-down defence triumphed on the day and Hungary will be rueing its two from nine conversion rate on extra-man attack. Spain was not much better. But four from 15 proved enough for victory.
One of these teams had to lose and the closeness of the early-season competition showed and the unpredictability of the play with such swings also will cause some concern for both teams as the year progresses.
FRANCE 10 MONTENEGRO 11
With France 5-2 ahead in the second quarter, the local supporters were not happy. It became 5-5 at the long break and 9-7 in Montenegro’s favour by three-quarter time. The home side pushed it out to 11-8 with two minutes left and allowed France to slip in the final two goals.
France’s Mehdi Marzouki was the undoubted star with an amazing six goals, including the final two inside the last 90 seconds as he valiantly tried to get the draw. Three of his goals came on extra-man attack and the other three on action. Captain Ugo Crousillat added two more. Marko Petkovic scored a hat-trick for Montenegro, two from extra.
From 1-2 down, France sent in three goals in two minutes for the 4-2 quarter-time advantage. Montenegro levelled by halftime and Marzouki reclaimed the lead for France.
Two Montenegrin goals swung the match; Marzouki levelled, but three Montenegrin goals had the home team 10-7 up a minute into the last period. France’s 3-1 final burst was not enough to secure the draw and potential shootout.
Stats don’t lie
On a day of big defence, France slipped in six from 14 on extra-man attack and Montenegro six from 18. Montenegro converted its sole penalty attempt.
France is coming up in the world, just two years out from its home Olympic Games. Montenegro needed the win to appease its fan base and keep up impetus for the final two days.
What they said
Vladimir Gojkovic (MNE) — Head Coach
“I expected a really hard game from the start. We were behind the French team, 5-2, then we attacked and gained our chances. We made a lot of mistakes, but we can be happy with this victory and advancing to the semifinal. We made a change in our defence from the start of the second session. After that, things started going well for us.”
Dejan Lazovic (MNE) — Player of the Match
“We played a really tough game against the team of France. They’re so in control; they’re such an amazing team that managed to beat Spain just a month ago. It was a really tough match. We managed to beat them in front of our fans and our supporters remain happy now. It was really an amazing feeling to play in our home pool. Many people didn’t even manage to get tickets. It was very tough and very beautiful to play in front of our crowd. Now, we’re less under pressure after we managed to beat France. Now, the games we play will be against favourites, so I think for us we will play much better without the pressure.”
Florian Bruzzo (FRA) — Head Coach
“We’re disappointed to lose this game. The way we played this game, I don’t think we played at the level that we can expect from ourselves. But congratulations to Montenegro. They were in front of their people, this was a nice moment. It’s hard to say what was missing right now, but a bit of experience. We can learn from this.”
SERBIA 13 GREECE 6
Serbia is the team to beat, not because of this score, but the way in which it makes swift passes, selects shots and generally bruises its way through the match. Greece was without regular captain Ioannis Fountoulis and fellow veteran stars Marios Kapotsis and Angelos Vlachopoulos, so new players were given the opportunity.
A rematch of last year’s Olympic final, the game played nothing like that encounter as Serbia took a 4-2 quarter-time lead, and bumped it to an unassailable 9-4 at halftime and 11-5 at the third break.
Left-hander Dusan Mandic was awesome with four goals, the first two from the right, the third from the penalty line and the fourth a power shot through strong defence for 12-5 from the left-hand-catch position.
Greece had the 2-1 advantage and then it swung Serbia’s way at 4-2. Greece kept in touch at 5-4 down then Serbia kept Greece scoreless for 13 minutes for 11-4. Greece levelled the match at 2-2 for the last nine minutes.
Stats don’t lie
Serbia was the more economical on extra-man attack than any other team today, converting four from nine while Greece managed just two from 16.
Serbia is the form team no matter who it turns up with. The tight attacking play, superb passing and dynamic style will make it a hard team to beat in Podgorica.
What they said
Dusan Mandic (SRB) — Player of the Match
“I’m happy that we started well into the match. We know Greece very well, a good, strong team that we played in the Olympics final in Tokyo. They were without three key players and we could feel that in the pool. We can be very satisfied how we played defence.
"Tonight, our goalkeepers, both of them, played excellent. They did pretty much the whole job on defence. That’s it, that’s our way to play. We’re most concentrated on the defence. This is how we do it. Tomorrow we will play our famous opponents from Spain. I’m expecting one very exciting, one very tough, real man’s game. There are no secrets between us, even though there are some changes in the teams. We know each other very well. It’s going to be a very great match.”
Theodoros Vlachos (GRE) — Head Coach
“It’s not good, my feeling after this game. I cannot expect to feel good because we did not deserve something. Today, Serbia played much, much better. We didn’t have passion. We didn’t have rhythm. We didn’t have good defence. What I saw, we are not yet ready to play at this level. I don’t think we gave everything that we could to make for a very much closer match.
"I know it’s the beginning of the season, but I am not satisfied with how we played this game. We came here with a new team, sure to have some results and to see how we will react. We will use the next two games to see our condition and to see how the players for the future will come back.”