For First Time in Decades, Serbia Will Not Be a Semifinalist at European Men’s Water Polo Championship

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Spain's Alvaro Granados Ortega ended Serbia's string of dominance—four straight titles—in the European Championships. Photo Courtesy: Tsutomu Kishimoto

A dramatic finish Wednesday to a men’s quarterfinal match at the 34th LEN European Water Polo Championships may signal the end of an unprecedented reign of success. When Spain’s Alvaro Granados Ortega beat Serbian goalie Branislav Mitrovic in a shootout, it gave the Spaniards a dramatic 10-9 win and knocked the four-time defending champions out of the running for a medal for the first time since 1999.

2020_european_champ_logoSpain—which had lost a shoot-out to this same Serbian side in the 2018 finals—moves into a semifinal match Friday Budapest’s Duna Aréna. They will face a dangerous Croatian squad which advanced by beating Greece 14-11 in another quarterfinal.

[Catching Up with Darko Udovicic about Serbian Water Polo]

The other side of the semifinal bracket will feature host Hungary, a 14-10 winner over Russia, against a Montenegrin side that held on for a 10-8 win against Italy, the 2019 FINA World Champions.

All matches Friday will be streamed live via Daily Motion and can be found here.

An era of greatness that may now be over

In a tournament that has for the most part has closely followed expectations, the Spanish victory stands out as a sign of what may be in store at the upcoming Olympics, to be held this summer in Tokyo. The Serbian roster from the glory years of the past decade—which included gold in ten-straight major tournaments from 2012 – 2017—was largely intact for Budapest. Milos Cuk, Nikola Jaksic, Dusan Mandic, Stefan Mitrovic, Andrija Prlainovic, captain Filip Filipovic and Head Coach Dejan Savic are all members of the “Golden Age”—arguably a period of greatness for one of the world’s most successful participants in polo .

14-09-2018: Waterpolo: Berlin FINA Men’s Water Polo World Cups 2018

Hungary’s Peter Manhercz has nine scores in four games. Photo Courtesy: Sportphoto.shop

But Spain has been a persistent challenger to Serbian supremacy, and Thursday at Duna Head Coach David Martin-Lopez’s squad took the lead midway through the second period and never relinquished it. Led by captain Felipe Perrone Rocha’s pair of goals and 11 saves from goalie Daniel Lopez Pinedo—including a shootout stop on the always dangerous Mandic (three goals)—Spain will now prepare to meet the Croatians in Friday’s second semifinal.

Croatia beat Greece behind four goals from Maro Jokovic and three apiece from Javier Garcia and Josip Vrlic, as well as 14 saves by goalie Marko Bijac. They took a three-goal lead in period one, expanded it to 10-6 at the half, then held on as Greece rallied but never got closer than three. Angelos Vlachopoulos (three goals) led all Greek scorers, while Konstantinos Genidounias, who scored six goals on Monday against Romania, was held to two scores on nine shots.

The main problem for Head Coach Theodoros Vlachos was on defense; with just seven saves goalies Emmanouil Zerdevas and Konstantinos Galanidis (inserted in the second half) registered a paltry 33% save percentage.

Hungary got a rousing performance from its side, with hat-tricks from captain Denes Varga and Peter Manhercz to subdue the Russians and Konstantin Kiselev (three goals Thursday; 14 for the tournament). They will face Montenegro, which broke out to a 7-6 halftime lead on a goal from Dragan Draskovic (two goals) and then rode the hot hand of Marko Petkovic (four goals) and goalie Dejan Lazovic’s 12 saves to move into a semifinal with the home team.

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Italy’s Francesco Di Fulvio came up empty on Wednesday. Photo Courtesy: FINA

Italy got two goals from Niccolo Figari, but missed on 22 of 30 attempts, include 0 goals in seven attempys by Francesco Di Fulvio, the 2019 Swimming World Male Water Polo Athlete.

Clearly, the Montenegrins—who have yet to qualify for the 2020 Olympics—had more to play for than the Italians, who already booked a berth to Tokyo with their World Championship win.

There’s one Olympic berth for the taking at this tournament, and—depending on how Spain does Friday—it will go to the tournament winner. Italy—a berth earned at the FINA World Championships—and Serbia, which booked a Tokyo ticket by winning the 2019 FINA World League Super Final, did not have the same pressure to succeed as Croatia, Hungary and Montenegro. The Hungarians will be rooting for a Spanish victory on Friday; that will guarantee them an Olympic berth just by advancing to the finals.

Ideally, the prospect of Euro gold and an Olympic opportunity will produce the best possible conclusion to the men’s bracket.

Georgia, Germany play for 9th; Turkey and Romania in a battle for 11th

Georgia, a 12-6 winner Wednesday over Turkey, will face Germany, which beat Romania 15-10, for 9th place. A win will equal Germany’s best finish at the European Championships since a 5th place result in 2012—and continue a recent upsurge in German polo play.

[Catching Up with Rainer Hoppe, Chairman of German Water Polo]

A win will give the Turks their second-best finish since a 10th place finish in 2010, and is a vast improvement on a 15th place finish in 2018 at Barcelona.

France closed out play in 13th after beating Slovakia 9-6, while the Netherlands, which won it’s opening game of the tournament and then dropped three straight, beat Montenegro 19-9 to finish 15th.

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