Hungary, Spain Men Draw In Day Five of 2020 European Water Polo Championships

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Hungary's Marton Vamos (white cap) put on a clinic Thursday in Budapest as the home team tied with Spain in European Championship play. Photo Courtesy: SIPA USA

Two of Europe’s top men’s teams faced off Thursday at the 34th LEN European Water Polo Championships, one of a number competitive matches on day five of competition at the Duna Aréna in Budapest.

2020_european_champ_logoIn a thrilling back and forth affair, Hungary rallied for an 11-11 tie with Spain on a strike with forty seconds remaining by Gergo Zalanki. This battle of contenders for Euro gold saw Spain’s Felipe Perrone Rocha notch three scores while Marton Vamos, Swimming World’s 2017 Male Player of the year, led all Hungarian scorers with a hat-trick.

In other results from Thursday’s play, Croatia, which desperately wants to win this title and qualify for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, held off a massive comeback by Montenegro from a five-goal fourth quarter deficit to beat their regional rival on a goal by Javier Garcia with a minute remaining to win 11-10 and take a commanding 2-0 lead in Group A play.

Romania was a 15-7 loser to Serbia, the defending European champions, while Germany beat Slovakia 8-5, Turkey slipped by Malta 13-10. Russia bounced back from an opening day loss to the Serbs, beating The Netherlands 15-9. Greece was a 17-10 winner over Georgia, while France dropped a 10-7 decision to Italy.

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Duna Aréna is the right venue for European Championships. Photo Courtesy: Budapest 2017

After two days of play, five of the eight spots for the quarterfinals are now set, as Croatia, Italy, Hungary, Serbia and Spain will advance on Monday, while Greece, Montenegro and Russia are favorites for the other three quarterfinal berths.

It was the day’s final two games that provided the biggest drama for the tournament thus far. In addition to the regional prestige of capturing the European Championships—the content’s biggest annual prize for national teams—this year there’s an added incentive to win gold in Budapest. The winner—or if Italy, Serbia or Spain make the final—one of the teams that advances to the title match, will also qualify for the 2020 Olympics, the sport’s most important tournament.

Playing in front of a rabid home crown, the Hungarians would like nothing better to capture a European Championship title for the first time since 1999. The Spaniard, who were runner up to Serbia in 2019, have had a strong showing in 2019, finishing second to Italy at the 18th FINA World Championships last summer in Gwangju South Korea.

The two sides battle for 32 minutes, with neither team gaining more than a two-goal edge. The match’s third period saw Hungary and Spain combine for seven goals and ended with an 8-8 tie, presaging a furious final eight minutes. The Spaniard took three one-goal leads and the Hungarians responded every time, closing the scoring with Zalanki’s goal.

Next up for the home team on Saturday is the final match of Group C play, when Hungary faces Malta. Spain will finish group play against Turkey, which got three goals from Nadir Sonmez to offset five goals by Malta’s Ben Plumpton for the win on Thursday.

In Croatia’s win over Montenegro, Luka Bukic registered a hat-trick and goalie Marko Bijac had a strong performance, stopping 12 Montenegrin shots. Comfortable ahead 10-5 entering the final period, Croatian Head Coach Ivica Tucak watched in horror as his team collapse. When Montenegro’s Stefan Vidovic beat Bijac on a power play goal with two and a half minutes, the match was tied and Tucak’s worst nightmare was becoming a reality.

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Serbia’s Dusan Mandic. Photo Courtesy: Total Waterpolo

But there’s a reason that Croatia has one of the world’s best sides. Garcia, who has been playing in his adopted country for almost a decade—and was a member of Croatia’s silver-medal effort at the 2016 Rio Games—buried the extra-player shot with a 1:12 remaining to rescue his teammates.

Next up for Croatia is a final Group A match with Slovakia, a narrow loser to Germany on Thursday. Montenegro will regroup against the Germans, who got three goals from captain Julian Real to overcome a defensive-minded Slovak squad. Five Slovakian scored single goals, while goalie Tomas Hoferica turned aside 12 shots.

Serbia got a vintage performance from lefty Dusan Mandic, who registered four goals, include a couple from distance, to beat Romania and take a 2-0 lead in Group B play. The Serb’s final match in group play is against The Netherlands, a loser to Russia. Falling behind on a Russian five-goal explosion in the second period, the Dutch never recovered, falling to 1-1 in group play.

In defeat Jesse Koopman, Robin Lindhout and Jorn Winkelhorst scored two goals apiece. The Russians got a monster game from Konstantin Kharkov, who delivered six goals, including two during a second period which saw his team grow a one-goal advantage to five.

Romania will look to get a win in group play when it faces Russia on Saturday. The Romanians will need to solve their offensive problems; with only 15 goals in two games—including four scores by Andrei Gheorghe—Head Coach Athanasios Kechagias will need to right the Romanian ship before the European Olympic qualifications in March.

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Greece is now 1-1 in Group D play, getting four goals from captain Ioannis Fountoulis to beat Georgia. The Greeks will face France, a 17-10 loser to Italy. The French (0-2) got two goals from Thomas Vernoux but were no match for the Italians, who got hat tricks from captain Pietro Figlioli and Francesco Di Fulvio, the 2019 Swimming World Male Player of the Year.

The Italians will close out group play Saturday against Georgia (1-1), which has gotten five goals from Boris Vapenski and 14 from everyone else. An upset in this match—highly unlikely—would give the Georgians a shot at leapfrogging the Greeks for an unexpected twist to 2020 European Championship quarterfinal play.

After two days of men’s play, the standings are:

Group AGroup BGroup CGroup D
Croatia (2-0)Serbia (2-0)Hungary (1-0-1)Italy (2-0)
Montenegro (1-1)Netherlands (1-1)Spain (1-0-1)Greece (1-1)
Germany (1-1)Russia (1-1)Turkey (1-1)Georgia (1-1)
Slovakia (0-2)Romania (0-2)Malta (0-2)France (0-2)

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