Novi Beograd wins the game of miracles against Brescia, faces Recco in the final
Host Novi Beograd and last year’s bronze medallist Brescia produced arguably the most thrilling match in recent years which offered everything and even more, brilliant goals, a goalkeeper’s blast to tie the game and a winner 5 seconds from time by the Serbs. As a contrast, Recco outpowered Ferencvaros and earned an easy win in the rematch of last year’s final. The Italians are now ready to retain their title – that would be the first double since 2008 when they had also achieved the feat of claiming back-to-back triumphs.
Semi-finals: AN Brescia (ITA) v Novi Beograd (SRB) 13-14, Pro Recco (ITA) v FTC-Telekom Budapest (HUN) 10-7. For places 5-8th: Waspo 98 Hannover (GER) v CN Marseille (FRA) 11-9, Zodiac Atletic Barceloneta (ESP) v Jug Adriatic Osiguranje Dubrovnik (CRO) 12-9. Schedule for Saturday – 12.00, For 7-8th: Marseille v Jug. 14.00, For 5-6th: Hannover v Barceloneta. 17.00, Bronze medal: Brescia v FTC. 19.30, Final: Novi Beograd v Recco
The first semi-final saw everything one would expect in a water polo match – and even more. Brescia managed to take a two-goal lead twice, at 4-2 in the first, then at 6-4 in the second period, but Novi Beograd kept coming back. It stood 7-7 at half-time, then Brescia took the lead again and again, still, the Serbs always found a way to equalise. It went on like this until 11-11, when, after a great save in a man-down from the hosts’ Brazilian goalie Joao Coimbra, Angelos Vlachopoulos put the hosts ahead for the first time.
It was Brescia’s turn to equalise, and they just did that twice. The second was simply amazing: 39 seconds remained from the game, the Italians set up a 7 on 6 after a time-out and their goalie, Petar Tesanovic, instead of taking the usual spot in front of the opposite goal, stayed back and went for a 7m shot – and the ball hit the back of the net for 13-13! But the real drama was still ahead, and for that, you need an original Greek – NBG had that hero, Angelos Vlachopoulos, who scored the winner 5 seconds from time. It was his 5th goal in the game (from 5 shots), and his third in the fourth period (to make it even more dramatic: Vlachopoulos played for Brescia last season).
Thus, right upon their first try, Novi Beograd made all the way to the final, the first Serbian team since Radnicki played for the gold medal in 2014 – and the living legend of local water polo, two-time Olympic champion Igor Milanovic led a third club to the final as a coach, after Partizan (in 2011) and Recco (in 2015).
The second semi lacked the same tensions and thrills – it was rather the copy of last year’s final when Recco’s superior condition prevailed against the tiring Hungarians. It stood 5-5 at halftime but a 4-0 run by the Italians decided the outcome, a late goal did not change anything, Recco won 9-6. This time the Italians were already 5-4 up at midway, despite missing their first six man-ups – Soma Vogel kept his team in the game by some fine saves in the early stages –, and in the third period they blew their rivals away. Another 4-0 run till 8-4 did the damage, the Magyars didn’t have too much left in the tank – two late consolation goals were only enough to lose the match with the similar gap (10-7) as in last June.
So it was Recco’s turn to make its second final in a row – Ferencvaros achieved that in 2019 and 2021, now missed the chance to have a triple run – and they also have a chance to retain their title; the Italians were the last one to do it, but it happened long ago, in 2007 and 2008.
In the games played for the 5-8th places, Hannover managed to pull off another upset, just like last year against Olympiacos – this time the Germans downed Marseille with a fine finish. They had lost to them twice in the prelims and for three periods the French were in control here too. Then they faded in the fourth and Peter Muslim led Waspo to a big win – the Croat scored six goals, including five of Hannover’s last six hits.
In the other game the two utterly disappointed QF losers faced off. Unlike the teams in the previous encounter, both Barceloneta and Jug were really close to cause an upset but fell short by a single goal – and this had a lasting impact. The Spaniards had more reserves, produced a 4-0 run after 2-2 and even though Jug had a bit similar surge as a day before when it came back from 6-2 to 7-6, the Croats were unable to hold on, Barceloneta rebuilt its 4-goal lead and never looked back.
Brescia v Novi Beograd 13-14
The Serbs could have drawn first blood, but Strahinja Rasovic was denied in a clear 2 on 1 by Petar Tesanovic – and the ‘re-counter’ was finished by Nicholas Constantin-Bicari with a fine 5m shot. The hosts equalised right away, Radomir Drasovic put away an extra. It wasn’t a problem for Brescia either, Vincenzo Dolce netted their first extra for 2-1. Not the next one, though, Joao Coimbra came up with two big saves, the first one with his head – but he couldn’t put a hand on Vincenzo Renzuto’s ball coming from the perimeter.
Miroslav Perkovic pulled one back after he calmly put away a man-up from close but Jacopo Alesiani’s outside shot also sneaked in from the goalie’s hand for 4-2. Vasilije Martinovic badly missed NBG’s next 6 on 5, then Brescia wasted back-to-back extras in the same possession. The gap could have been three, instead, Martinovic stepped up and netted the next extra from the same spot, to show some courage, so it stood 4-3 after eight minutes.
It could have been even, but the Serbs missed two man-ups in a row. Brescia’s defence worked really well, Dusan Mandic’s trademark 6m shot ruined the woodwork only – but Coimbra also had a great save in a man-down. Then came the big hit – Mandic put his hand on the ball in the wing position in a dying attack and went for a backhanded blast, it hit the back of the net, to prompt roars from the crowd, but most importantly it was even again at 4-4, with four minutes to play till the middle break.
After a fine save at both ends, Renzuto battled himself into shooting position in the left and despite receiving a heavy face-massage, he managed to put away the ball – and soon a brilliantly played man-up with a spectacular finish from Djordje Lazic (rather a basketball-like dunking) set back Brescia’s two-goal lead. It didn’t last long as Dusko Pijetlovic netted a big one from the centre, then the hosts killed a man-down and Angelos Vlachopoulos’ smart shot from the right wing in a 6 on 5 brought NBG back to even at 6-6. The scoring machine didn’t stop, Edoardo di Somma quickly put away a man up, Djordje Vucinic replied from a 6 on 4 – so after the first four minutes of this period had no goals, the following four saw seven. And it stood 7-7 – when the entertainment was suspended for the three minute break (the two legends, coach Sandro Bovo and coach Igor Milanovic gave a pat on each other’s shoulder with a huge smile while exchanging halves – it was sportsmanship at its best).
Brescia missed its man-up earned in the dying seconds of the previous quarter, and the following one too (neither of the shots got to the goalie). Tesanovic headed out Strahinja Rasovic’s 2m shot in a man down then di Somma let the ball fly from 8m for 8-7. Radomir Drasovic was red-carded for a hard turn over foul, but a block denied the Italians’ ensuing 6 on 5 and Dusan Mandic could stay above the water long enough to send the ball to the empty net as all others sank in front of him in NBG’s extra. Di Somma converted a penalty, then only millimetres denied the Serbs in their next man-up (the ball did not cross the virtual line), but Vlachopoulos scored a ‘sure’ action goal from the outside for 9-9. The Italians wasted another man-up, Tesanovic somehow stopped Martinovic’s shot with the help of the post and Lazic pushed the ball through the goalie’s hand from close range and they kept their 10-9 lead for the final quarter as Viktor Rasovic pushed the ball to the crossbar under pressure in the last 6 on 5.
The Serbs continued to look for the 2m finishes in man-ups but were denied again, but Mandic found some breathing space, enough for an action goal. Brescia’s leftie Boris Vapenski calmly finished off their 6 on 5 but Vlachopoulos was also on target in a man-up for 11-11. And the Greek gave the lead to the home side for the first time in the game with a pinpoint shot from a man-up – after Coimbra had come up with a save in a man-down. The Serbs risked a bit in front, but a turnover foul was called, and the Italians brought the counter to a precise finish by Stefano Luongo. Their aggression didn’t pay off, instead resulted in a 6 on 4 and Jaksic dunked it for 13-12, with two minutes remaining. One minute to go, Coimbra delivered a huge save – then Tesanovic stopped Mandic after a time-killing possession.
Brescia called a time-out 39 seconds from time, went for the obvious 7 on 6 – and then happened the unexpected. Their goalie Petar Tesanovic took a shooter position (usually goalies go in front of the goal), in fact the farthest one, still, it was him who decided to take the shot – and it hit the back of the net for 13-13.
Still, there were 22 seconds to play – and the drama just hit bigger heights. Thanks to Vlachopoulos who scored from the distance, with 0:05 on the clock. Indeed, his ball sneaked in under Tesanovic’s arm, turning the goalie to a fallen angel and sending his team to its first-ever Champions League final. It was the 5th of the little Greek God (he posted 5/5, not bad for a semi-final), taking 3 of NBG’s last 4 goals.
Recco v FTC 10-7
Vogel’s save in a man-down kicked off the party, but he couldn’t have a hand on Ben Hallock’s shot from the centre – as a mirror, Ferencvaros also missed its first man-up, but Nemanja Ubovic sent the ball home from the centre for 1-1. Voged denied the Italians again in their next 6 on 5, then again, while Daniil Merkulov’s bouncer found its way to the net from a man-up for 1-2. Vogel made it 0 for 4 for Recco – basically doing more for his team in man-down than against Jug in the entire game.
Recco’s miseries with the man-ups went on, they wasted a 6 on 4 without taking a shot – though the Magyars couldn’t really penetrate Recco’s defence so it was inevitable, that the title-holder would find the way to equalise. It happened after more than four minutes, when Aleksandar Ivovic converted a penalty. Gergo Fekete replied immediately from the man-up, he took two shots, the second went in for 2-3. Gonzalo Echenique broke FTC’s zonal defence with a fine left-handed shot, so after scoring one goal in 12 minutes, Recco managed to have two in 61 seconds. And soon arrived the first from a man up as well, by Ivovic for 4-3 – Recco now netted three from as many possessions. Merkulov hit his second from the next man-up – then after denied outside shots Recco earned a penalty from a counter and Gergo Zalanki didn’t make a mistake against his former team-mates, 18 seconds before the middle break. The Magyars tried their luck with a 5sec man-up at the end, but Merkulov’s ball was saved this time – so Recco led 5-4.
Though FTC killed another man-down early in the third, still, they were visibly struggling in front, exhausted by the physical battle Recco enforced, less than 24 hours after their gruelling battle with Jug. When Luka Loncar’s shot from the centre doubled Recco’s lead and then Marton Vamos was denied by a block in a rare man-up after a play lacking any dynamics, the writing was already on the wall.
Giacomo Cannella showed how a finely-tuned 6 on 5 looks like, soon Aaron Younger’s ball went in from Vogel’s hand – at 8-4, with Recco enjoying a 4-0 run, Ferencvaros’ prospects for a third consecutive final were anything but bright. Vamos sent the ball home, though only after del Luongo denied him once in back-to-back man-ups, to halt the Magyars’ scoreless period after 7:27 minutes. It was a short-lived happiness as Hallock scored another fine one from centre for 9-5.
The game was very much reminiscent of last year’s final: after a balanced first half, ending in 5-5, Ferencvaros faded in the second half which Recco won 4-1 – the Magyars’ goal came at 9-5 then. Now this 4-1 scene was produced in one single period – and just like last year, it was hard to see a comeback from the Magyars. Denes Varga also had his rare off-days, so his magics were not on hand to save the day. His coach tried special line-ups in attack (Varga sat out, no classical centre), but not even their man-ups looked threatening. Recco denied two in succession, del Luongo stopped the outside shots with ease – it was more than enough in this situation, so they didn’t force anything in offense. Still, they were the first one to score, Francesco di Fulvio’s distant shot found the back of the net for 10-5, with 3:13 to go. Varga netted a consolation goal from a man-up, but it was too late, 45 seconds from time, followed by another one from Vamos 4 seconds from time for 10-7 – this didn’t change the outcome, that Recco advanced to its second consecutive final, and a third one in the last four editions.
For places 5-8th
Hannover v Marseille 11-9
Marseille beat Hannover twice in the prelims, home and away, without any problems (13-10, 14-7) – however, this match ended in a different way. Even though the French seemed to keep the game under control, they were not as sharp as during their 11-game winning streak in the prelims, they were unable to deliver the decisive blow to expand the gap to three or more goals.
They comfortably maintained a two-goal lead through the middle of the third period, but the Germans’ fighting spirit never ceased and by scoring twice in 55 seconds they came back to even at 6-6. This woke up the French, but only temporarily. They scored two easy ones in 49 seconds for 6-8, then Petar Muslim pulled one back just before the last break.
And in the fourth Marseille wasn’t back in the mood, so as five minutes were left on the clock, Hannover went ahead at 9-8 for the first time in the game. Another French man-up was gone without a shot, and the Germans had their first ‘semi-matchball’, a 6 on 5 after a time-out. Muslim was on fire, brilliantly finished it off from the wing for 10-8 – it was his 5th in this afternoon –, though there was still 4:06 minutes to play.
But only 2:06 remained, when Marseille managed to halve it with a man-up goal by Igor Kovacevic. Then they denied the German’s extra and could play another one in front – but Michael Bodegas was blocked by the defenders and Muslim’s 6th goal from the perimeter ended the match in a stylish way.
Barceloneta v Jug 12-9
Unlike the previous game, which featured teams whose quarter-finals were decided prematurely, here two sides clashed whose players left everything in the pool on Thursday and still came up short by a single goal. This left its mark on the performances, the game was nowhere close to the intensity we had seen from them a day earlier – but this was all understandable.
Barceloneta sill had more in the tank, and it became visible quickly as they played with more precision especially in offence. Till 2-2 it was an even match, but then Jug slowly lost its composure and the Spaniards took a 4-2 lead by converting a penalty and a counter. The second period just enhanced these trends, Jug was shut out by the rivals’ defence for eight more minutes while Miguel del Toro put away a man-up early, and later another counter by Oscar Asensio gave a 6-2 lead for the Spaniards.
Jug’s miseries were somewhat eased in the first possession in the third, when Marko Zuvela buried a 6 on 4 to break his team’s 13:53 minute-long silence. Then with some luck Konstantinos Kakaris collected a rebound after a killed man-down and pushed in from close range to make it 6-4. Luka Pavillard’s fine left-handed shot from the perimeter only halted Jug’s comeback as Stylianos Argyropoulos scored twice in 74 seconds to bring Jug back to one goal at 7-6.
The Croats seemed to have started finding their Thursday path when they caught up Ferencvaros after going down by three goals – and now they had a man-up to equalise but couldn’t set up the 2m finish and Unai Biel scored from the counter for 8-6. And this scenario was repeated again – Jug missed another 6 on 5, Alejandro Bustos hit the Spaniards’ one from close, so Barceloneta enjoyed a massive 9-6 lead once more before.
Soon it was 10-6 in the fourth, despite a missed penalty by Alberto Munarriz – Marc Larumbe scored a fine one from action. Kakaris pulled one back from the centre, but Larumbe was more precise from the 5m line for 11-7. Another hard-fought one from Kakaris kept Jug a bit on track, then they switched to a risky game after a time-out, forcing counters and one paid off for 11-9 with 1:45 to go, but in the next possession the Spaniards remained patient and their unmarked man, Alejandro Bustos closed down the contest from the wing.