Courtesy: LEN Media
The Olympic champion and title-holder Serbian team’s quest for a record- tying fifth straight gold was halted by 2018 runner-up Spain as they avenged their defeat two years ago by beating the Serbs in a penalty shootout. Earlier Montenegro staged a great performance to oust world champion Italy and keep its Olympic qualification campaign alive. They will face host Hungary in the semis, which overcame minor struggles and with a fine second half downed the Russians. Croatia came up with a brilliant first two quarters against Greece and they just cruised in the second half to set-up a re-match with Spain after their memorable battle in the semis at the Worlds last summer.
Men’s quarter-finals: Italy v Montenegro 8-10, Serbia v Spain 6-6 (penalties: 3-4), Hungary v Russia 14-10, Croatia v Greece 14-11
For places 9-12th: Turkey v Georgia 6-12, Germany v Romania 15-10. For places 13-14th: Slovakia v France 6-9. For places 15-16th: Malta v Netherlands
Fixtures for Friday:
Semi-finals: Montenegro v Hungary, Spain v Croatia. For places 5-8th: Italy v Russia, Serbia v Greece. For places 9-10th: Georgia v Germany. For places 11-12th: Turkey v Romania.
The quarters kicked off in the most stunning way possible as Montenegro ousted the world champion Italian team. In the first period the Montenegrins took the lead thrice but Italy could equalise every time and then went ahead three times in the second but the Montenegrins also had the answers. It was a thrilling first half, capped with a great blast from Dragan Draskovic who gave back the lead to his team for halftime (6-7).
Things started changing in the third, though the Italians managed go even but they began to miss their man-ups in succession while their rivals netted two 6 on 5s to build a 7-9 lead before the last break. The trends didn’t change in the fourth, the world champions were unable to put away any of their 6 on 5 (they closed the match with 1 for 15) – while Aleksandar Ivovic buried a penalty for 7-10. Though Nicolo Figari pulled one back from action with 3:36 to go, they couldn’t add any more (after 6-5 there was a 15-minute long
period when Montenegro had a 1-5 rush). This means Italy will miss the quarters for the second time in the last six editions – the previous loss also occurred in a January edition, in 2016, guess to whom: Montenegro (7-10).
The series of shocks didn’t end here, in the next game the title-holder and Olympic champion Serbs were also gone. In recent years Spain found the tools to match them, in the final of the previous Europeans they played a draw and lost only in the shootout. Last summer they beat them in the World Championships quarters, though that was a young Serb side – but this time they managed to oust the ‘mighty boys’.
The game followed almost the same pattern as the final in Barcelona: though the Serbs took a 3-1 lead, Spain went ahead with four connecting goals to 3-5 (three came in a span of 101 seconds). The champions came back here too as in 2018: after the Spaniards missed a crucial man-up to go 7-4 up, they netted one for 6-5 before the third. Then Dusan Mandic buried a 6 on 5, his third in the game, to break even with 5:51 remaining. And the defences worked well, especially Dani Lopez, who had 11 saves, so the decision was left to the shootout once more.
Serbia entered the same five players who converted all five penalties in 2018, Spain changed one, Francisco Fernandez, who had missed the crucial shot which cost them the title. This time the outcome was different since two of the ‘safest hands’ made a miss on the Serbian side, Prlainovic and Mandic. Even though Munarriz was also denied, Alvaro Granados netted the fifth attempt (with brave heart after he had been 1/7 in the game). This also ended the Serbians’ dreams to tie Hungary’s ancient record (1926-1938) of winning five back-to-back titles – their run was halted at four here – and it’s also going to be the first time since 1999 that they don’t reach the semis.
Hungary then reset the ‘paper-form’ button – and regained some pride to defeat Russia, the team which had beaten them in Barcelona on the last day to push the Magyars to the 8th place, their second worst performance ever. This time it was a different team and a different story, though Russia did a fine job as they managed to stay close in the first half (6-5) and didn’t collapse when the home side rushed to a 10-6 lead in the third. They came back to 10-8 and a penalty save by Vitaly Statsenko kept their hope alive. But Hungary opened the fourth in the same devastating mood as the third, netted three connecting goals in 1:54 minutes and there was no way back for the Russians after 13-8.
Croatia joined the semi-final party with perhaps the most convincing win in the four QFs. They could score from almost all distances and angles in the opening period while Greece missed many fine chances as the Croats took a 6-3 lead. In the second they could add two to go 8-3 up and from that point they just did a brilliant job in maintaining the gap. Greece could never come closer than three as the Croats, led by Maro Jokovic with 4 goals (playing in Greece for Olympiakos in the club season), managed to score whenever it was needed and Marko Bijac also contributed a lot with 13 saves (while
Greece’s first goalie had to be substituted after the first half since Emmanouil Zerdevas had only 3 saves on 13 shots).
This sets up exciting semi-finals for Friday when Hungary will face Montenegro (like in Belgrade 2016 semis) and Spain is to meet Croatia (like in Gwangju 2019 semis). Among the four teams only Spain has secured its place at the Olympics so the other three will make a hell of effort to grab the quota available here.