Serbia beat Italy 12-9 in the gold-medal match of the European qualifying finals for the 2022 FINA Men’s Water Polo World League Super Final in France this July, but it was the bronze-medal face-off that held most interest. The winner of this encounter would gain the third qualifying berth after the top two had earned their places on semifinal day. Spain swam away from Montenegro in the final quarter for 15-10 and now has another major tournament for the already-busy northern summer.
PODGORICA, Montenegro — The first two days threw up five matches won by a lone goal. On the final day, the gold-medal final was the closest at 12-9; Spain’s margin was five goals and in the play-off for fifth, Hungary swallowed Croatia 14-9 and Greece routed France 18-12 for the seventh classification.
With so many young players sharpening their teeth in this tournament, it bodes well for the upcoming FINA World Championships. Some teams were without star players through Covid-19 or injury — Greece lost three — and Hungarian head coach Tamas Marcz was left at home with Covid concerns and 1996 Olympian Zsolt Nemeth stood in for him.
ITALY 9 SERBIA 12
Serbia first, Italy second. Serbia had the strength, persistence and stamina to defeat Italy. Serbia was rattled at times, but it came through when needed. Both teams had the Super Final qualification in the bag from the semifinals, so it was all about pride and taking the opportunity to play against class opposition. Serbia is the Olympic champion and Italy the world champion — a title Serbia is keen to snatch in Budapest come early July.
Drasko Gogov (SRB) made sure of the Serbian win, scoring a penalty in the first and scoring an extra-man goal from either side of the pool in the third and fourth periods. Dusan Mandic, such a power shooter with his left arm, needed only to steer in a brilliant cross pass to centre forward on extra for his second and 12-8 inside the final two minutes. Luca Damonte, a red-card recipient a day earlier, scored twice on extra with his left arm and Edoardo Di Somma also scored two extra-man goals.
Italy drew level at one, three and four, let the margin slip to two at halftime and three at the final break. When it went to four early in the fourth, Italy was assigned to second spot.
Stats don’t lie
Serbia’s normally tight extra-man statistics did not eventuate this time with seven from 19 while Italy managed eight from 20. Serbia shot at 34 per cent and Italy at 29. Serbia had to make 13 saves compared to Italy’s eight, such was the ferocity of the Italian attack.
Serbia is still the best team in the world and proved it today. With Worlds, Super Final and European Championships to tick off this year, the first hurdle, such as it is, has been jumped. Italy did not like the tough Balkan draw, but can take home much hope from the efforts in the three matches. Both teams will be steeled for Budapest.
What he said
Sandro Campagna (ITA) — Head Coach
“We didn’t have a lot of power in this match; maybe this is what we missed. Three matches against three ex-Yugoslavia teams was too much for us in this period of the season. But I cannot complain about my players because they did excellent. We played really well, we just missed some goals and we received some silly goals on defence. Getting scored on 12 times is too much, but defence played excellent the first two quarters and the first two matches. Now we have a full summer (with qualifying here for the Super Final). We now have time to get their physical condition better and to study up. There’s a lot of things to do, a lot of matches to analyse and still to play.”
SPAIN 15 MONTENEGRO 10
Classification 3-4 and final qualifying berth for Super Final
In one of the lowest-fouling matches, Spain returned to the World League Super Final fold with a commanding victory, built on counter-attack and an excellent 5-2 final period. Spain jumped out of the gate at 3-0, led 6-3 at the quarter and then had trouble fending off Montenegro, spurred on by the near-capacity home crowd. The host made it 6-6 at halftime, levelled at seven and then let the match slip away as Spain eased to 10-8 by the final break and onward to victory.
Spain’s Alberto Munarriz was named player of the match for his four goals with the last a penalty conversion for 12-8. Power centre forward Roger Tahull grabbed three of his own, as did Bernat Sanahuja. For Montenegro, Marko Mrsic scored four goals, including the last two for his team. Marko Petkovic had three on his belt by halftime.
The opening three goals, the switch to 6-6 by the Montenegrins and then the 4-2 Spanish third quarter were all decisive times in the match.
Stats don’t lie
Montenegro had the better of the extra-man attack at five from 10 — probably the best percentage of the week — and Spain sent in three from seven.
Spain was the fitter and faster of the two and deserved to gain the third and final berth for the Super Final in Strasbourg, France in late July.
What they said
Alberto Munarriz (ESP) — Player of the Match
“Obviously, we missed this tournament, the World League Super Final, last year so we’re happy to be back. We want to be at the top level of every competition. To do that, we have to be in every game and play good water polo. I think today that we have shown some quarters where we play great water polo. We also had some mistakes, but that’s normal.”
David Martin (ESP) — Head Coach
“Ah, I feel satisfied. It’s always important to come away with a win, but even more because we’re back in the Super Final. It’s a very important for us to be there playing against the reigning world and Super Final champions. It’s very hard, very difficult in this moment of the season, but I’m very happy with the performance of the team.”
Vladimir Gojkovic (MNE) — Head Coach
“Okay, we didn’t have concentration before the game. We opened the game with a lot of mistakes. What can we expect from Spain? They have the best counter-attack in the world; when we make a lot of tactical mistakes? After that, we recovered and got back into the game. The last two quarters were very difficult and, okay, we need to go back and analyse the game to try and be better next time. We saw some good things, yesterday and today with the young players. They showed great potential and great character. I am satisfied with them.”
HUNGARY 14 CROATIA 9
Hungary showed why it is the Olympic bronze medallist with a front-running start and a 10-5 second half. From 3-1 at the quarter to 4-4 at halftime and a four-minute Croatian lead, Hungary switched the advantage to 7-4 and then 9-6 by the final break. The last quarter was a formality.
Marton Vamos was the undoubted star for Hungary with his withering left arm from long distance. His first goal came off a smart cross-drive in front of goal, the second from penalty and the other two from seven metres. Fellow left-hander Gergely Burian scored a pair that gave Hungary impetus from 5-4 to 7-4. Jerko Marinic tried to bring Croatia back single-handedly, scoring the last three Croatian goals in less than two and a half minutes.
Hungary’s opening 3-1 quarter was overturned by Croatia as it went 4-3 ahead. The match swung Hungary’s way in the third period, going 7-4 up and moving to 12-6 midway through the last.
Stats don’t lie
Hungary managed just three from 12 attempts on extra-man attack to Croatia’s five from 15. Both teams turned over the ball seven times and the saves were 11/10. Luca Bukic (CRO) had two attempts at the penalty line, with the second, in the third period, barring out.
Croatia will need to look at its immediate future and the line-up that will take it forward to Budapest 2022 and the European Championships at home in Split in August-September. Hungary is heading in the right direction with new players being blooded with Paris 2024 in mind and can look forward to an excellent campaign when it plays to packed stands in Budapest this June-July.
What they said
Marton Vamos (HUN) — Player of the Match
“We have been developing ourselves, match by match. It was a tough game against Croatia; they are a very good team. But I think we had a better head. It’s not easy to reach the fifth position; mentally it’s hard and we were better. I am satisfied with this result.”
Ivica Tucak (CRO) — Head Coach
“The first two quarters, we played well. We saw a lot of good stuff from our team. We were energetic and playing very well. With three games in a row, though, it was very hard for us. At the end of the game, we lost a bit of the concentration and that was the main problem we had. But this was a very good tour, a very good tournament for us because we were able to tackle the problems we have within our team as we’ve had a lot of changes. This will help us at the upcoming World Championships in Hungary.”
GREECE 18 FRANCE 12
This match was a secretary’s nightmare with 30 goals and 35 major fouls. As disruptive as the match was, it still produced some excellent moments like the way Konstantinos Kakaris managed to slap the ball into goal from two metres off a swift cross pass to the water. With so many extra-man attacks, it was a case of who could do it better and the teams negated each other with eight conversions apiece. It was a match of attrition and Olympic silver medallist Greece had the stronger club players, many of them new to this level. France died in the final quarter and needs to be able to address this for the longer tournaments. Greece won the first quarter 5-2, lifted to 9-5 at the long break and went into the final period with an unassailable 15-8 advantage. France’s Mehdi Marzouki, who had eight goals from the previous two matches, was restricted to a pair today.
Kakaris was superb for Greece at the centre-forward position. While his first three goals came from there, his fourth at the end of the third period was from counter-attack. Stylianos Argyropoulos netted three, including one of Greece’s two penalty goals. Thomas Vernoux unleashed a three-goal spurt, lifting France from 9-5 down to 10-7 straddling halftime. His fourth came from extra-man attack at 16-11 and it was the first time we saw this mercurial athlete explode into the scoring positions in Podgorica.
From 2-2 to 5-2 at the first break, Greece had the mettle of France, who swung the pendulum by two goals in the second period before Greece rammed in four straight, signalling who was going to win.
Stats don’t lie
Greece converted eight from 15 and France eight from 16; Greece converted two from two at the penalty line and France had one of its two blocked by the keeper. France made 14 turnovers to Greece’s seven.
Greece has a history and a club system that keeps producing top players and top junior teams. These youngsters gained an opportunity in Podgorica and will give head coach Theodoros Vlachos much-needed information on whom of these will be given the chance at Budapest 2022. France, as head coach Florian Bruzzo agreed, needs to be able to play day in, day out in the longer tournaments and not become exhausted when most needed to perform.
What they said
Konstantinos Kakaris (GRE) — Player of the Match
“We didn’t play well the first two games. We needed to win today and we needed even more to play well. And I think we did. We had a few mistakes, for sure, but this was a good effort on our part to recover after the two opening losses. I think it’s the most important thing, to start the game with energy. Sure, you need to control the mistakes and everything, but the most important (thing) is to start and play with energy.”
Theodoros Vlachos (GRE) — Head Coach
“Always when you win an official game in the FINA World League, you feel very good, even if it is the third game we played. When we lost to Serbia and lost the opportunity to qualify for the Super Final, for me this was the best test for our many new players that came here. We came here with only four players from our Tokyo Olympic team. So, for all the others, I wanted them to show me something with how they play in the water and how they fight game by game. I think they showed me many, many things. We will use all these experiences for the future. I am satisfied. France is a really good team; they’ve improved a lot the last three-four years. They are playing without any pressure and in two years they have the Olympics in their country. They have quality; they have fight. They have good players; I was expecting that they will play with risk and try to attack again and again and again.”
Florian Bruzzo (FRA) — Head Coach
“We didn’t have enough power to be competitive across all four periods. We didn’t play well. We didn’t do what we wanted to, so it’s impossible to win against Greece when this is the case. It was an interesting game for us regarding the lack of enthusiasm of play. Then we had a key player pick up two fouls very quickly, so we give some (time) to a younger, inexperienced one. They can do and we will show them how to understand and to grow into becoming a top player and not just being in the shadow of this good player that we have. At the World League Super Final, we need to learn how to play six games in a row in six days. You know, the third game here was too much for us and in Strasbourg there will be six.
8. France (*pre-qualified as host)
* Qualify for Super Final