Day 9, Group A – Pro Recco (ITA) v Zodiac CNA Barceloneta (ESP)

With all the history of these two teams – Recco beat the Spaniards in the previous eight games – and especially the Italians’ devastating victory in Barcelona on Day 6, it was hard to imagine that Barceloneta would ruin the title-holders’ party, held in the magnificent Bocconi Sport Center in Milano, in front of a capacity crowd. Then it turned out that even the almighty Italian giants could underperform sometimes – especially just three days after the Italian Cup Final Eight where they had to play three matches in as many days.

At the same time, the Spanish seemed to have learnt a lesson in the first game and with a spirited performance, they stunned the hosts at the very beginning. Despite missing two man-ups early on, they managed to open the scoring from action, and then again to go 0-2 up from back-to-back possessions. Recco were also denied in the first man-up, then Aaron Younger finally broke the ice after almost six minutes. Miguel del Toro had an easy put-away from close in an extra, after one pass, followed by Luke Pavillard’s fine action goal and Barceloneta were already 1-4 up. To offer something for the enthusiastic crowd to cheer for, Younger blasted one from the perimeter 9 seconds from time, but the contrast between this one and the first game was very much visible already: Barceloneta scored four goals in eight minutes, only one less they could put together in the entire first match at home.

After an early exchange of goals, the hosts started to get in a downward spiral as they missed three 6 on 5s in a row (in less than two minutes), so Ben Hallock’s goal from the centre was a big relief a bit later. The Spaniards missed a 6 on 4, and they paid for that as Francesco di Fulvio equalised at equal strength. Alberto Munarriz took back the lead with a 6m shot, on the other end Younger buried a penalty for 6-6 and it stood for halftime as Marco del Lungo stopped Felipe Perrone’s penalty 18 seconds from time.

The momentum was with Recco, but they let it go as they missed two more man-ups in quick succession early in the third, and almost three minutes into this period Roger Tahull’s fine centre-shot put the Spaniards ahead once more. The Italians’ miseries continued, Unai Aguirre came up with a tremendous save on Hallock’s close-range shot in a man-down, and he denied Di Fulvio as well in the next one. Barceloneta wasted one as well, but they defended well in the last man-down in this period – uncharacteristically, Di Fulvio was unable to deliver in 6 on 5s, he missed another shot, so Recco couldn’t score in this quarter.

And they went on struggling in the fourth, the Spanish defence did a splendid job and with 4:47 on the clock they doubled their lead when Alberto Munarriz hit one from the perimeter. Fifteen seconds later Recco earned a penalty, Gergo Zalanki converted it for 7-8, to end their 12:19-minute long drought. The Spaniards missed the following extra, but Martin Famera’s fantastic block denied Hallock’s 2m shot in Recco’s 6 on 5. And the Slovakian-born player carried on his heroics as he scored another action goal in the dying seconds of the next possession for 7-9 (after another distant goal conceded, del Lungo was substituted in Recco’s goal). Again, the home side replied immediately, Di Fulvio could blast one at least from action – so the gap was cut back to one with 2:26 on the clock.

Entering into the last minute, Recco got another extra, but Di Fulvio’s ball wasn’t even on target (he finished the game with 0/4 in man-ups) – the Spaniards didn’t risk anything, they burnt the time, took shots in the last moments and focused on their defence. That paid off – they had to face one last man-down when only 0:05 remained from the game, and Younger couldn’t make any more miracle.

It was a kind of fitting end to this outstanding encounter – Recco scored a man-up goal in the first period, from their second 6 on 5, and missed the next 13 to finish the match with 1 for 15, which, of course, also a big praise for the Spanish defence. Another telling fact that between the two action goals of Di Fulvio, late in the second, then late in the fourth period, there were 16 minutes when Recco could score only two penalty goals.

For Barceloneta, this superb defending was the only way to turn a heavy defeat into a close win (from 5-11 to 9-8) – and this also means that Recco went down at home after three years: the last time they left their own pool empty-handed was on 21 February 2020, against Hungary’s OSC (8-11), weeks before the competition was halted due to the pandemic. Then Recco came back stronger than ever, clinched back-to-back titles while won 28 matches out of 29 during these two seasons (lost only to Jug in Dubrovnik). Now this is the second defeat for the Italians in the prelims (Olympiacos caught them right in the first round) – we have to go back to 2014 to find multiple defeats for Recco in the group stage.

How they saw it

Sandro Sukno, coach, Recco

“Congratulations to Barceloneta, they played better. Unfortunately, we lost but we are in the middle of the season and there is still a long way to go. The Italian cup weekend was tiring but I’m not looking for excuses.”

Elvis Fatovic, coach, Barceloneta

“I’m really happy with this win. I think it was a bit about the difference between the goalkeepers. I think we should have closed down the game earlier, as today we were physically stronger, partly due the Recco’s fatigue after the Italian Cup. All in all, Recco is a really strong team and it was a really difficult game.”