Group B

Spain 17 United States of America 15 in penalty shootout (FT: 12-12. Pens: 5-3).
It was the first match of the year internationally for these teams and the top two teams in global women’s water polo did not disappoint with a superb encounter that had Olympic and World Cup champion USA in the box seat in the middle quarters, coming from 2-2 at the first break to 6-5 at halftime and 11-9 at the final break.

Spain controlled the final period and USA levelled with less than 16 seconds remaining. In the final three minutes there was a buzzer problem that slowed the momentum and USA was unlucky not to have gained a penalty shot when an excluded player seemingly knocked the ball from the USA’s player’s hand on free throw. USA head coach Adam Krikorian protested the non-call to no effect. It came down to the shootout where Maddie Musselman hit the right upright on the third USA shot while Spain, who shot first, sent in all five attempts.

Match heroes:
Bea Ortiz, who scored three of Spain’s first six goals, nailed the 12-11 go-ahead goal for a four-goal tally, the same number as left-hander Judith Forca who had three in the first seven and began the shootout surge. Jordan Raney scored two extra-man goals and a shootout conversion to lead the USA scoring.

Turning point:
With the match even at all the numbers to eight, USA skipped to 10-8 by 2:17 of the third quarter and then goals were traded to give USA the definitive advantage by the last break. Then the match switched as Spain scored twice on extra-man attack and converted a penalty chance at 2:39 for only the second lead of the match since the 1-0 opener. USA’s Rachel Fattal scored off the left-post position after the extra-man time had expired to level at 0:15, forcing the shootout.

Stats don’t lie:
USA had the more chances on the six-on-five situations, but could only convert six from 15 while Spain went 50 per cent with four from eight. Spain converted the only penalty attempt in regular time.

Bottom line:
It was the opening gambit and Spain came out on top in what is a tough year for European teams, especially. Spain has the inside running to make the World Cup finals, but its long-term aim, as espoused by head coach Miki Oca after the match, was Olympic qualification. USA will take the match on notice and bounce back, for certain. It’s not often USA loses a match, but chinks in the USA armour have seen upsets in recent years.

Italy 14 China 13
Italy needed a Silvia Avegno goal two seconds from time to defeat China 14-13 in a magnificent match. It was the case of a vastly experienced team against a Chinese team without any international experience. China is building towards the September Asian Games where qualification for the Paris 2024 Olympic Games is on offer.

What a debut for these players, controlling much of the match and almost forcing a penalty shootout!  China took a 2-0 lead, was 4-2 up at the quarter-time break, edged out to 5-2 before Italy equalised. China’s Sanfeng Nong had her goal verified by VAR 23 seconds from halftime to give her team a 6-5 lead. It became 7-5 and 7-7 with Avegno scoring her second and third goals on extra-man attack. China again went to the lead before Italy grasped the mettle at 9-8 and led into the final quarter 10-9 ahead. It became 11-9 and 12-10. Then Claudia Marletta banged in her fourth goal, on penalty at 5:25. A lob goal by Dunhan Xiong on extra and a follow-up goal by Nong made it 13-13 at 3:44.

Both teams took timeouts and with the clock almost hitting zero, Avegno sat up at seven metres and bounced the ball into the top of the net for the winner — and her sixth — with two seconds remaining. China’s reply was blocked at the other end and Italy had survived what could have been a miracle match for China in what is a tough group.

Match heroes:
 by far. Marletta was more than capable, but Avegno was the go-to person when it mattered and she delivered big time. Jing Zhang scored three of her four goals in the opening quarter.

Turning point:
China went 5-2 ahead and Italy came back for 5-5, levelling at seven and eight before taking the lead for the first time at 9-8 and 10-9 by the final break. With a 13-11 advantage, Italy was almost celebrating, but China turned the match again with two goals in just over a minute with less than four minutes remaining. Avegno finally turned the match in Italy’s favour.

Stats don’t lie:
China made better use of the extra-man plays with five from 11 compared to Italy’s three from nine. China gained excellent penalty chances, grabbing three in the first nine and a half minutes. Italy converted its sole chance.

Bottom line:
Italy is the far more experienced side, but Chinese head coach Haris Pavlidis, from Greece, has done wonders with the new-look team. He lamented giving up 14 goals, but was proud of scoring 13, especially since it was the first international match for the players. Italian head coach Carlo Silipo was pleased to come away with the win, especially since the team finishing bottom of the group will miss out on the final series in June.

Full Results

Group A

Australia 7 Netherlands 11
Netherlands came through the first day unscathed with what turned out to be a comfortable win over Australia. The Aussie Stingers held all the cards initially with a 2-1 quarter and 4-3 midway through the second period before Netherlands fired in two in two minutes for the 5-4 halftime advantage.

Australia brought it back to 7-6 behind and drew a penalty shot at 1:31, which failed to find the net, costing a brilliant chance for the equaliser. Netherlands took its penalty chance to start the fourth period and then netted for a 9-6 margin that had Australia reeling. Abby Andrews converted extra-man attack, but Sleeking netted her second, also on extra, for the three-goal difference at 3:08. Netherlands kept the defensive shutters up and converted extra with just four seconds remaining for the flattering four-goal victory.

Match heroes:
 topped the scoring with three — two on extra — with Australia’s best Charlize Andrews with a couple of action goals and Alice Williams with her first on extra and the second from the field.

Turning point:
Australia had the 3-1 advantage early in the second quarter and led 4-3 with Netherlands bouncing back twice to level by 2:51 before halftime. When Maartje Keuning scored at 0:54, it gave impetus to Netherlands to open the third period with a Sleeking strike on extra. This turnaround and the 4-1 final quarter put paid to any Aussie Stinger retaliation.

Stats don’t lie:
Netherlands converted four from 10 on extra-man attack and Australia three from nine. Netherlands converted two penalty attempts and Australia missed its sole chance.

Bottom line:
Netherlands has many players competing in European competitions and this worked to its advantage. Although it started shakily, the Dutch team regrouped and made sure of what will prove to be a valuable victory as the competition unfolds. Australia needs to retain concentration for longer, something that might come quickly in what will be a furious competition, taking in two countries before the finals in Long Beach, USA this coming June.

Greece 12 Hungary 14
Greece threw away a three-goal advantage to go down by two goals to Hungary in a topsy-turvy match. Hungary opened the scoring only to see three Greek goals change the course of the match. Greece went 4-2 into the second quarter and 8-5 into the second half.

Two minutes in, Greece was still happy with its performance, but then Hungarian captain Rita Keszthelyi had different thoughts and smashed home five goals in four minutes for a 10-9 lead and then 11-10 at the final break. Her shooting from the top punched the air out of Greece and the concentration was lost, according to head coach Alexia Kammenou. Two goals in the final period were not enough to bridge the widening gap Hungary was creating.

Match heroes:
 was incredible with six goals, playing a true captain’s role. As she said after the match: “The main goal is to get the gold medal in Paris (2024 Olympic Games)”. She referred to the heavy programme leading up to Paris and her performance today showed she is “on song” for a wonderful year. Her five-goal haul in the third quarter that was interrupted by two Greek goals (Athina Giannapoulou and Nikoleta Eleftheriadou) was pivotal to Hungary winning today. Eleftheriadou led the way for Greece with four goals and centre forward Eleni Xenaki grabbed three more.

Turning point:
 heroics in the third period, bringing Hungary from 8-5 behind, levelling at eight and then nine before grasping the 10-9 advantage. Greece brought it back to a goal, but Hungary sent in consecutive goals for a three-goal margin four minutes from time.

Stats don’t lie:
Greece was slightly better on the extra-man-advantage count with four from 12 while Hungary netted three from 12.  Greece converted both penalty attempts and Hungary sent its only chance wide right.

Bottom line:
Such is the tightness of competition at this level, every win is vital and Hungary came up trumps, leaving Greece to wonder what went wrong. There is still time to improve and shore up defences despite the tough opponents ahead. Hungarian head coach Attila Biro praised Keszthelyi for her attack and defence and also four younger players who stood up.

Progress points:

Group A: Netherlands 3, Hungary 3, Greece 0, Australia 0.
Group B: Italy 3, Spain 2, USA 1, China 0.