Pro Recco became the second team in history to claim three Champions League titles in a row, 52 years after Mladost Zagreb had achieved that feat. The Italians downed host Novi Beograd with an overwhelming performance in the final, maintaining a three-four goals gap throughout almost the entire game. Barceloneta claimed the bronze, though they could only beat underdog Vouliagmeni in a penalty shootout.
Final: VK Novi Beograd (SRB) v Pro Recco (ITA) 11-14. Bronze medal game: Zodiac CNA Barceloneta (ESP) v NC Vouliagmeni 9-9, pen: 5-4.
Final rankings: 1. Pro Recco, 2. Novi Beograd, 3. Barceloneta, 4. Vouliagmeni, 5. Olympiacos Piraeus (GRE), 6. FTC-Telekom (HUN), 7. Jug Adriatic Osiguranje Dubrovnik (CRO), 8. AN Brescia (ITA)
Unlike last year, when only the penalties decided the outcome, Vol. 2 of the Recco v Novi Beograd ‘final series’ produced less thrills. The Italians kept the game under firm control right from the beginning and their victory was never in danger.
Recco jumped to a 1-4 lead in eight minutes while Novi Beograd missed three 6 on 5s in a row. The big twist could have happened in the second, when, for the first time in history, a VAR review was initiated by the LEN delegates because of an alleged brutality, and the referees identified the hit by Gonzalo Echenique on Alvaro Granados and called the four-minute ejection and the penalty. At this level, a four-minute man-up can be a game-decider or at least has a huge impact on the outcome – here it served as a confidence-booster for Recco, since the Italians scored two goals, one from a forced 5 on 4, one from man-down for 3-7 to stun their rivals. NBG missed three possessions before managed to score two goals, so the Serbs could come as close as 5-7 during this phase. And once being back on equal strength, Recco hit back two in 70 seconds to lead 5-9 at halftime.
The hosts had a fine surge early in the third, halved the gap in 56 seconds, however, their momentum was gone soon as Francesco di Fulvio netted two action goals in 38 seconds to reset the four-goal gap. Indeed, NBG’s goalies weren’t on top of their game, they were going back and forth between the goal and the bench, an unmistakable sign that the defence didn’t work. At the other end, Marco del Lungo always came up with a couple of crucial saves and after 7-11, the home side could never get inside three goals any more.
Though Alvaro Granados – who had joined NBG for this season – did his best, scored five goals, and received the MVP Award at the end, the team effort of the title-holders, plus di Fulvio’s and Gergo Zalanki’s four hits apiece, combined with veteran Aleksandar Ivovic’s triple gave the necessary edge to Recco.
It was an overwhelming performance from the Italian giant this time – they won their QF and SF by four goals respectively and the final by three, leaving no chance for their rivals. Recco landed their 11th title and won the last three in a row to become the second team in history after 52 years to make the three-peat.
On contrary, Novi Beograd is the 6th club losing finals in back-to-back years, the first since Jug’s double defeats in 2007 and 2008 – back then also Recco downed the Croats in succession.
A couple of greats also passed historical milestones: though Pietro Figlioli did not play in Belgrade, he was part of the show in the prelims, and now the others won the 7th title for him, an absolute record. Ivovic and Aussie Aaron Younger joined an elite club of 5-time winners (they are the 5th and 6th member respectively), and Younger also became the first player in history to lift the trophy at the end of four straight finals (he won in 2019 with Ferencvaros – he clinched his five gold medals across the last six editions).
In the bronze medal match, underdog Vouliagmeni were close to another miracle. Though Barceloneta controlled the game for most of the time, the Greeks held on and with a spirited performance they even took the lead in the fourth period and had two man-ups to win the game after 9-9, but missed both, leaving the decision to the penalties. The Spaniards lost a shootout in the semis (to NBG), now they were the luckier side to finish third, for the fourth time since 2013. Vouliagmeni still deserves all praises as they came up with the club’s best-ever result in the top competition.
Champions League shall restart in early September with a new playing format as the preliminaries will be contested in four groups of four, followed by the quarter-final round with two groups of four and a Final Four tournament shall crown the season, in a year or so, on 6-8 June, 2024.