Champions League Men

Talking points from the Champions League Final Four

FTC-Telekom crowned their best-ever season by lifting the Champions League trophy for the second time in five years. In terms of trophies, they just equalled their 2019 treble (home league title, national cup, Champions League triumph), but that time they were never so dominant as in this season. Their final win-loss ratio for 2023-24 stands at 40-1, which is something one may call impressive (among the 40 victories, there were two shootout wins, both in the CL, against Jadran in the group stage and against NBG here in the semis). They also got rid of their demons by overcoming Recco at the end – since 2019 they had five losses and a draw against the mighty Italians, but could never upend them. Fradi had to face the giants in the knockout-stage in the previous three editions as well and were unable to force even a close match (2021 final: 6-9, 2022 semis: 7-10, 2023 QF: 4-8). This time they turned the tables, and put the game on a path where their rivals felt little or no comfort. Indeed, Recco have a game like this perhaps every four years – the Italians led only once, at 2-1 in the first, and never again. Coaches and players of the newly-crowned champions all emphasised their plan was to rock Recco’s otherwise rock-solid self confidence and to make them feel this was going to be a different story. And the Magyars did manage to prevent Recco from staging their customary strong start which usually puts their rivals under enormous pressure and sooner or later almost all of them lose balance and composure. Limiting Recco to four goals at half-time is a feat alone, but it’s even more telling that the Italians were never trailing by two after three periods in the entire season. Even though they were coming back in the fourth, they were already out of their comfort zone and of their winning mood and that eventually led to the 4min expulsion of Gergo Zalanki. The referees called a strike to the face (of Daniil Merkulov) and awarded a penalty to Fradi. Well, talking about this call… in the ancient Greek dramas the phrase ‘hubris’ stands for a key sin which triggers a tragic chain of events. Recco’s left-handed players committed the hubris in back-to-back finals. Last year, Gonzalo Echenique was expelled for four minutes because of a violent action, however, that time Recco survived against Novi Beograd – the VAR review happened early in the second period, the Italians already led 2-5 and could add two goals while playing 5 on 6. This time, Zalanki struck his rival midway through the fourth, in a phase when Recco were coming back and FTC were fading a little. Even though Recco could still work some magic – forcing seven (!) exclusions in three possessions, netting all – FTC also took their chances and kept a single goal lead to the end. One may get two clear messages – when the VAR is at work, it’s not worth risking trying to take an advantage through physical abuse. (Especially if you are left-handed: add Filip Filipovic, ejected in the semis, leftie like Echenique and Zalanki…) The second, that in water polo this is not the way to land trophies on the big stage. You may survive one hubris, but definitely not a second one. To save some pride for the left-handed aces, let’s take a subjective pick and name Dusan Mandic the MVP of the Final Four. The Serbian genius, who turns 30 on 16th June, well deserves this distinction as he delivered his A game once more. The two-time Olympic champion got the MVP trophy back in 2021 – ironically, then Recco beat Ferencvaros in the final. He spent the following two years with Novi Beograd, so this could have been his fourth Champions League final in a row, provided he had been entered for the 2023 F8, but a year ago his presence was no longer requested by the NBG management. Originally, Ferencvaros did not consider contracting him, but once learning his situation, they made a quick offer and Mandic joined them right away. While being a constant threat the whole season, Mandic’s biggest days came in Malta. He hit five against his former team in the semis to take the sweetest revenge possible, then he added four more goals against Recco, in the most crucial moments. And to crown his magnificent performance, he made the last block in the dying seconds to kill the man-down which would have put Recco back to even. This was another testament to the ever-true motto – offences win matches, but defences win titles. All the Fradi players agreed in the post-game interviews that their defence was the key to bringing down the kings of European water polo. Recco made the final upon 13 occasions in the last 18 editions – it was in 2006 when their grand march started with seven straight appearances in the gold medal matches. Over the first course, they won four and lost three, in the second ‘chapter’, before coming to Malta, they won four in five finals, including the last three and were ready to set another record of claiming four titles in a row. However, Ferencvaros halted their run and even though many may lament on tactical approaches or individual performances, at this level the difference comes down to the mental approach. FTC’s Szilard Jansik, captain of Hungary’s 2023 world championships-winning side, summed it up quite tellingly: “Here, everyone has great condition and proper tactics, skills and preparedness. “What makes the real difference is who wants it more in the hardest moments. “This time we did want it more than Recco – who had clinched the last three titles – you know, hungrier dog runs faster.” See all the results and all the highlights from the Champions League Final Four in Malta by clicking here.

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Ferencvaros sink Recco to be crowned champions of Europe

Ferencvaros are celebrating in Malta this evening after winning Champions League gold. The determined Hungarians held off a spirited Recco 12-11 to lift the coveted trophy for the first time since 2019 and ended the Italian giant’s dream of a fourth-straight title. Earlier, Olympiacos triumphed in the bronze medal game against Novi Beograd, running out 9-6 victors. Champions League Final Four ResultsFriday 7th June 2024Gold Medal: Pro Recco (ITA) 11-12 FTC Telekom Budapest (HUN) Bronze Medal: Olympiacos (GRE) 9-6 Novi Beograd (SRB) Packed stands awaited the two teams vying to be crowned champions of Europe, as Malta’s water polo loving public embraced the Final Four for a second night of thrilling action. Around 3,000 loud and passionate fans filled the tribunes to watch another titanic clash between Pro Recco and Ferencvaros. This fixture deserved this electric atmosphere – as three years ago, when the same teams contested the final in Belgrade, the pool was deserted due to the Covid restrictions in 2021 As the battle in the pool commenced, Recco didn’t wait for anything, forcing exclusions in four of their opening five possessions. FTC’s defence did well in the first two and at the other end, Vendel Vigvari sent the ball home from Fradi’s first man-up. However, the next two 6 on 5s by the Italians ended up in the net, with Matteo Iocchi Gratta’s close push somehow bouncing in, then, after a denied man-down, Giacomo Cannella finished off a one-on-one. Still, the first quarter ended with the teams level, at 2-2, as Edoardo di Somma enjoyed an easy put-away in a 6 on 4 while a bad pass ruined Recco’s last extra in the dying seconds. After some initial tussling, FTC star Dusan Mandic drew first blood in the second with a blast from a 4 on 3. However, Recco soon equalised – Soma Vogel came up with a big save in the man-down, but the Italians got the rebound and Aaron Younger fired one in from the perimeter. Szilard Jansik didn’t need long to reply and in FTC’s next extra he hit a big one from 6m for 3-4. Marco del Lungo also had a big save on Adam Nagy and that gave Recco the chance to keep up, which they took, as Iocchi Gratta put away another from close in a 6 on 5. Their following one was well blocked, then the Hungarians’ struck again as Jansik worked some space before lobbing the ball to the far corner from a relatively impossible angle. Recco were lacking their usual sharpness in offence, missing yet another man-up – and FTC penalised them from action once more, with Mandic managing to hit a great goal from distance for 4-6. This scoreline stood for half-time – and in the finals Recco have played (and there are many), the last time they trailed by two at half-time was in Rome 2011, against Partizan, and that time they lost, badly. Recco needed some luck once more for a man-up goal as Vogel denied them on their first attempt again, but Konstantinos Kakaris sent the rebound back with a spectacular backhander. Fellow Greek Stylianos Argyropoulos then kept his calm to hit a man-up, and after a counter, Denes Varga buried a penalty to put the title-holders in more trouble as FTC led 5-8. Gergo Zalanki stepped up in Recco’s next 6 on 5, after a time-out, and their following one saw another clean finish, this time by Ben Hallock – so right in the middle of the third, Recco were back at 7-8. In contrast, FTC’s next man-up didn’t go as well as the previous one, with di Somma hitting the post from the back as the shot clock ticked down. Recco then had another 6 on 5 to make it even, but a 2m violation was called against Francesco di Fulvio. That was crucial as the time-out also helped Fradi in their 6 on 5 as Argyropoulos let a pinpoint shot fly for 9-7. This boosted the Magyars’ morale as they killed another man-down. The battle went to extremes as the last two minutes commenced in this quarter – players were gasping for air and lacking the shooting power to beat the defences – so Recco went into the final period trailing by two for the first time this season. As a sign that it could finish differently than the previous three editions, Recco missed a 6 on 4 – and Fradi had a match-ball like man-up but a block denied them – and Younger halved the distance as Recco earned a penalty from the ensuing counter.  Adam Nagy sent the ball wide from Fradi’s next man-up – and missing three man-ups in a row in the most important phase seemed to have its consequences as Iocci Gratta appeared to equalise for 9-9. However, the VAR came in and revealed a violent action by Gergo Zalanki – the goal was disallowed and FTC were awarded a penalty and a four-minute man-up while only 4:25 minutes remained. Mandic put his side in a winning situation by burying it for 8-10. Still, the situation wasn’t too unfamiliar for the Italians, as they had survived a similar fate last year in the final against Novi Beograd. And they quickly forced a 5 on 4 which di Fulvio finished quickly. Denes Varga kept a cool head and sent the ball home, but Recco went all in, forced a 5 on 3 and di Fulvio kept them in the game at 10-11 with 3:15 on the clock. But FTC didn’t commit the same mistakes they did against NBG, where they scored only once in four minutes from man-ups and Mandic buried another for 10-12. Yet the Hungarians were unable to deal with the Italians aggressive attacking, which always forced a man-up, then another one in the centre and it ended in another goal, this time by Kakaris for 11-12 and there were still just over two minutes to play. FTC called a time-out, but this time it

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Five talking points from the Champions League semi-finals

Here are five takeaways from the semi-finals of the the men’s water polo Champions League. 1. For the first time, penalties were needed to decide both semis Malta witnessed a first as each semi-final was decided by a shootout. This is something which may not surprise the fans, as all four teams had really impressive win-loss ratios across the season – it’s so difficult to beat any of them. In the end, the two group-winners of the Quarter-Final Stage, Recco and FTC-Telekom emerged victorious, though in both matches the eventual losers, Olympiacos and Novi Beograd, will be wondering ‘what if?’ as each had possession and the chance to win it at the very end. 2. Penalty history favours Recco and FTC As for shootouts, Recco are doing well in them – they won the title on penalties in 2021 and just like in that final, they also upended Novi Beograd earlier this year in the shootout in the QF Stage. Ferencvaros – and especially their goalie Soma Vogel – are also masters at shootouts, as ever since they lost the 2017 Super Cup final to Szolnok, the Hungarians have won four in a row on the international stage (2018 Super Cup final v Szolnok, 2019 Champions League final v Olympiacos, 2023 group-stage game v Jadran, 2024 semi-final v Novi Beograd). Vogel has also excelled for the Hungarian national team, delivering crucial saves to win the European Championships final (2020), the World Championships final (2023) and two more matches at the 2024 Worlds. Taking all matches into consideration, Vogel has a staggering 10 wins from 12 shootouts in his senior career – so far. Novi Beograd has had less luck, losing the 2021 final, a QF stage match, both to Recco and again now, in the semis to FTC – though a year ago they won the shootout against Barceloneta to reach the final. Olympiacos lost the 2019 final and this semi-final, had two wins earlier this season, against Jug on the opening day of the Group Stage and in Barcelona in the penultimate round of the QF Stage. 3. Former players proved a thorn in the side for previous employers In the semis, a couple of players did really well against their former clubs. Marko Bijac, who played for Recco between 2018 and 2021, kept Olympiacos in the game with a series of amazing stops. The Croatian genius posted 13 saves – he was the key to counterbalance Recco’s dominant offensive play as the number of shots on target (15-22) showed an unusually big difference. Still, in the shootout their combo with Emmanouil Zerdevas couldn’t help the Greeks the same way as in the previous two occasions in the season (against Jug and Barceloneta in the CL, and against Vouliagmeni in the domestic league final). Dusan Mandic’s exit from Novi Beograd wasn’t the nicest chapter of the super-leftie’s illustrious career last summer. Within days, Ferencvaros offered him a spot on their roster and the Serbian rocket-producer moved to Budapest where his fire power became a winning asset. On Wednesday night, he was instrumental in downing Novi Beograd as he hit five in the game and also buried his penalty in the shootout. 4. Finalists Recco and Ferencvaros are familiar foes For the fourth time in a row, Recco and FTC will clash in the season-ending showcase. In the previous three occasions, Recco beat the Hungarians convincingly – 9-6 in the 2021 final, 10-7 in the 2022 semi-final and 8-4 in the 2023 quarter-final. Indeed, Ferencvaros are yet to win a Champions League game against Recco, which holds a 5-0 lead in head-to-head (they also had two wins in the 2018-19 group-stage: 9-6, 13-7). They played a spectacular 13-13 draw in Italy in the prelims in the 2019-20 season, but the rematch never happened due to the pandemic which halted that season. 5. Recco looking to add more silverware to their impressive European haul Recco are preparing for their 19th Champions League final. The Italians have claimed a record 11 titles (1965, 1984, 2003, 2007, 2008, 2010, 2012, 2015, 2021, 2022, 2023) – and are aiming to make history by becoming the first team to win four titles in a row. In contrast, this is only the third final for Ferencvaros, though they managed to reach the title bout for the third time in five years. Battling for the bronze medal is a new experience for Novi Beograd as they advanced to the final upon their first two campaigns in the Champions League in the previous two seasons. For Olympiacos, this is going to be the second time playing the ‘small final’ – the first happened long ago, in 2007, when they lost a thrilling semi to Recco, just like here in Malta. Follow all the results and action from the Champions League Final Four in Malta live by clicking here.

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Ferencvaros deny Novi Beograd to reach Champions League final

The second Champions League semi-final in Malta – between Ferencvaros and Novi Beograd – opened with a shooting contest with the lead exchanging hands constantly. Vendel Vigvari put away a dying man-up, then Novi Beograd came up with two nicely set-up 6 on 5s with putaways from close. Dusan Mandic equalised from the perimeter and Szilard Jansik also sent the ball home from 7m for 3-2. Angelos Vlachopoulos’ shot hit the back of the net from 6m to make it 3-3 and we’d barely made the 5-minute mark. After some intense battling, a denied man-up by NBG, Stylianos Argyropoulos took back the lead for Fradi from a counter, however, it stood 4-4 as after a big save from Soma Vogel, Dusko Pijetlovic used all his vast experience and physical presence to score the equaliser from the centre, after a corner throw, with just 0.4sec remaining in the quarter. Vlachopoulos’ sneaking shot surprised Vogel at the beginning of the second and soon NBG doubled their lead as Nikola Lukic’s brilliant blast made it 4-6. FTC had some problems up front, and needed three and a half minutes to continue scoring, as Edoardo di Somma’s shot made it 5-6 which prompted Zivko Gocic to change his goalie. Francesco di Michelis came up big immediately with three saves in a row in a man-down, but Vogel also did his best – first his presence alone was enough for Vlachopoulos to overthink his penalty shot which hit the bar. Then he denied a man-down and Daniil Merkulov finished off a counter for 6-6. Vogel stopped Filip Filipovic’s rocket in the next man-down, while Merkulov’s nice bouncer in a 6 on 5 put FTC back in the driving seat at 7-6. This 3-0 run gave them the lead at half-time as Vogel posted his 7th save shortly before the turnaround. Dusan Mandic, after some mis-targeted shots and a calming rest on the bench, returned with a great shot while Alvaro Granados was around his neck, then Argyropoulos beat the goalie from the right wing in a man-up – so 65 seconds into the third FTC was 9-6 up. Gocic called a timeout, NGB managed to force a 6 on 5, Vlachopoulos took the shot, Vogel had a hand on it, but the VAR said it was behind the virtual line – so this halted NBG’s scoreless run after 7:20 minutes, then De Michelis stopped Merkulov’s attempt in a 6 on 5. NBG came even closer, though Filipovic also hit the bar from the penalty line, but soon Marko Radulovic could finish a man-up from close for 9-8. Though FTC had some struggles, missed another 6 on 5 – here NBG lost Granados with his third major. Then Mandic had some free space after a turnover foul and it was more than enough for him to make it 10-8. Filipovic sent the ball home from a trademark 6m shot, but his old pal, fellow Serbian Olympic champion Mandic delivered his fourth in a man-up for 11-9. It was a big back-and-forth, Skoumpakis had a great finish in a 6 on 5, then Pijetlovic seemed to have equalised but the VAR revealed that shortly before the man-up was called, Filipovic had struck his defender. For this, the captain was ejected for four minutes, and Mandic buried the penalty – instead of 11-11, it was 12-10 and FTC had a lasting man-up. At the start of the fourth, Vlachopoulos’ far from smooth lob somehow made its way to the net as Vogel mishandled it. FTC missed their man-up, then forced a penalty despite playing one man less and Cuk converted this penalty for 12-12. Merkulov finally managed to score FTC’s first goal in the 4min man-up (apart from the opening penalty), after more than two and a half minutes. And that was all they could put together as de Michelis made a big save in the next possession, so the 4min man-up brought a 2-2 partial result. NBG earned a man-up, but the block denied them with 4:10 on the clock. Mandic missed his next two shots, the second in a 6 on 5 and that seemed to be crucial as NBG managed to equalise. They had back-to-back 6 on 5s and Cuk sent the ball home from the second for 13-13 with 1:51 to go. Mandic had another try, again in a 6 on 5, and De Michelis denied him once more, but the Magyars made a steal and went for the winner after a time-out with 0:43 remaining. No call came for the centre-feed and then it was NBG’s turn to try to score the winner with 19 seconds remaining. It wasn’t enough, so a shootout commenced in the second semi as well. With Vogel on board, the Magyars seemed to have a better chance – and indeed he delivered the decisive save, in the last round, headed out Skoumpakis’ ball while the Hungarians buried all their shots. This was Vogel’s 10th win on penalties in his last 11 shootouts, as Ferencvaros joined Recco to contest the title once again after 2021. It was also the first time both Champions League semi-finals had been decided by penalties. Follow all the results and action from the Champions League Final Four in Malta live by clicking here.

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Recco edge Olympiacos in shootout thriller

Recco silenced Olympiacos in the opening quarter of their semi-final as the Champions League Final Four started in dramatic fashion on Wednesday night in Malta. The title-holders scored two in a span of 72 seconds for an early 2-0 lead while the Greeks couldn’t really penetrate Recco’s super-impressive defence. Indeed, they looked a bit bewildered, made a couple of basic ball-handling mistakes, though the Italians effective defending contributed a lot to the Greeks struggles. Olympiacos had a single shot on target, that was denied by Marco del Lungo in a man-down, then Marko Bijac made three saves in Recco’s next 6 on 5, however, once the lefties were back in the pool – they were rested in the previous one –, the door opened again and Francesco Condemi made it 3-0 with 1:39 on the clock. Olympiacos’ next man-up was gone without a shot, so the Greeks were already 3-0 down and in trouble after eight minutes. The Greeks were still looking for their first goal in the middle of the second, and not even a time-out helped them to find a breakthrough in their next 6 on 5. As a small piece of good news, they survived a double man-down before Konstantinos Genidounias finally found the back of the net from the perimeter. They needed three shots within this possession and almost 13 minutes in total to get on the scoreboard. Recco hit back immediately, through a devastating wing shot from Aaron Younger, which had the utmost precision for 4-1. Olympiacos wasted another man-up, their fourth, but after some fine defending, Marton Vamos blasted in a big one from action. Bijac delivered a huge save in a man-down and the Greeks had a 6 on 5 in the last 16 seconds to get closer in an almost invisible manner, but their passing didn’t work once more. In extras, they stood 0 for 5, while Recco, despite slowing down somewhat in this period, still led 4-2. Bijac’s 9th save kicked off the third, and with some luck, Ioannis Fountoulis finally put away a 6 on 5 as his deflected shot passed Del Lungo’s hands. Soon the scores were even, another man-up, another goal, this time from the 2m line by Alexandros Papanastasiou. Though the first half saw Recco dominating, Recco lost their momentum and had to start again. It wasn’t easy as the Greeks’ defence started clicking, as they denied another man-down and had the ball to take the lead, but Del Lungo had an easy catch. Ben Hallock battled himself to a relatively free position and tipped in Zalanki’s fine assist, but the Greeks also did well in the centre, earned a penalty and Genidounias buried it for 5-5. Bijac came up with two huge saves in a double man-down – denying Zalanki both times – but he couldn’t do much with Francesco di Fulvio’s perfect bouncer in Recco’s next 6 on 5 – so it stood 6-5. Olympiacos had two man-ups in the last two minutes, but this time they were unable to have clean shots, while Recco played with patience in their last possession and Younger’s one-timer gave them a 7-5 lead with 0:09 to go – indeed, it was more amazing that the Aussie let the ball fly with 0.4sec remaining on the shot clock. Ioannis Alafragkis’ close finish in the first possession of the fourth halved the distance immediately, then Recco missed a man-up, but soon Zalanki, after four denied shots, hit a fierce one from action for 8-6. Next came a VAR review after a hard contact between the centre and the defender, but the call stood, exclusion plus a penalty, which Marton Vamos sent home for 8-7. In 43 seconds it was 8-8, as Dimitrios Dimou let the ball fly from the perimeter and it bounced in from the woodwork. A turnover foul was called while Recco was scoring in a man-up, while the Greeks kept their calm and, again with some luck, they took the lead for the first time when Genidounias could push in a rebound from close for 8-9. The Olympiacos fans were starting to dream a shock was on the cards, but Recco weren’t hitting the panic button just yet, as Francesco di Fulvio fired one in from a 6 on 5 to level, then the block denied the Greeks’ shot in a 6 on 5 with 1:14 to go. A fine steal gave a chance for Olympiacos, but Vamos, under pressure from time and defenders, sent the ball wide and Recco had a last ball to win the match after a time-out, with 19 seconds to go. They forced a man-up but a block sent the game to a shootout. After four buried shots, both sides sent in their respective reserve goalies and that made the difference – indeed, while the Greeks made it ‘silently’, the Italians did it just before Dimou swam to the line to take the shot and the young Greek sent the ball wide, then Condemi buried Recco’s fourth, and Tommaso Negri caught Gkillas’ ball to win it 13-11 and send Recco to their fourth straight final. Follow all the results and action live by clicking here.

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Malta set to host a memorable Final Four

Malta is set to witness another memorable coronation of the Champions League season. The Final Four tournament features the four best teams in Europe, title-holder Pro Recco, ready for breaking more records, two former champion sides, Olympiacos and Ferencvaros, and the runner-up in the last two seasons Novi Beograd. As Recco’s legendary coach Sandro Sukno put it: here the level will be higher than it was in the semis at the World Championship. Champions League Final Four, Semi-finals – Wednesday 19.00 Pro Recco (ITA) v Olympiacos Piraeus (GRE) 21.00 FTC-Telekom (HUN) v Novi Beograd (SRB) For the first time ever, the Champions League finals are heading to Malta which has rich traditions in water polo but the beautiful pearl of the Mediterranean needed to wait until this week to see the crème de la crème of the sport. As the CEO of the local federation and the organisers Karl Izzo said: “This is a significant milestone in the history of our aquatics sports”, while Hon. Clifton Grima, Minister for Education, Sport, Youth, Research and Innovation talked about their three-year commitment to stage the season-ending showcase in Malta. “Through this prestigious tournament, we can create a lasting legacy,” said Grima. “We are investing to our infrastructure which enables us to host really high-level international sport events. But more importantly, we want the young generations to be attracted by this beautiful sport.” European Aquatics Vice President Kyriakos Giannopoulos assured the hosts the best clubs were competing in Valletta, the Maltese capital. “Very strong teams which have the best players in the world,” he said. “This event is going to be really exciting as the quality of these teams are simply amazing, this is one of the strongest fields we’ve ever seen.” The four semi-finalists showcased their outstanding strength right from the beginning of the season. All four retained their respective national titles – and as amazing as it may sound, none of the quartet lost a single game in their respective domestic championships. Recco was beaten in a penalty shootout by Brescia in the Italian Cup final, Olympiacos was forced to have a shootout in the first game of the Greek league final by Vouliagmeni – although they went on to win – but they are the only minor spots on their clean sheets. At the same time, Novi Beograd and Ferencvaros posted perfect records in Serbia and Hungary respectively, winning each and every home match across all competitions. The only losses came in the Champions League. Ferencvaros had one, against Olympiacos while Novi Beograd had three – one to Sabadell and two against Recco, one by penalties. Olympiacos was also beaten twice by Recco and once by Ferencvaros while Recco is yet to lose a match in regular time in the entire season. The Italian giant is one step away from adding another chapter to the history books by becoming the first team to win the Champions League four times in a row. They won the last three, boosting their total to 11, by far the most on the all-time ranks. However, they face Olympiacos in the semis and that’s a challenge. The last team which was able to bring down Recco in the CL finals was indeed the Greek champion, who beat the Italians in back-to-back F8s, in the 2018 final and in the 2019 semi-final. Ever since, Recco went 9/9 in the last three editions. The two already met in the prelims and Recco prevailed in both matches but only by a single goal. The other semi also promises a true thriller between Ferencvaros and Novi Beograd. A Hungarian v Serbian clash is always exciting but here, besides the top players from both nations, there is an army of foreign aces on both sides. Dusan Mandic arrived to Ferencvaros from Novi Beograd last summer, both teams have Greek greats, Stylianos Argyropoulos in Fradi, Angelos Vlachopoulos and Dimitrios Skoumpakis in NBG, plus Italy’s all rounder Edoardo di Somma in FTC and Spain’s top player Alvaro Granados in NBG. Add that two legends may have their respective Last Dances, the captains of the two sides, Denes Varga and Filip Filipovic and this adds a really special flavour to this encounter. Quotes from the opening press conference Sando Sukno, coach, Recco “Our expections are always high. This year we have an exciting season which is long because of the the interational break. Now this is the end, with four excellent teams and this tournament offers the highest level of our sport. I’d say this tournament is going to be better than the semi-finals and the medal round of the World Championship.” Aleksandar Ivovic, captain, Recco “Every year is different, this one is special with the European and the World Championship in the middle of the season. Most of the players were involved so they had a tiring season, with exhaustion, sometimes injuries which gives more uncertainty to the outcome here. We go step by step, first we face Olympiacos, a strong team, we have a lot of respect towards them as they have great Greek national team players and quality foreigners. It’s going to be tough, we had two matches already this season, both decided by one goal, so this is going to be very hard.” Hrvoje Koljanin, coach, Olympiacos “I know we had two close matches against Recco but I don’t think too much of those games as we played them six months ago. It’s going to be one tough match and we know whom we play with – an excellent team. We are improving and we only have to look at ourselves and not at our opponent. We have to show good face and strongly believe that we can do it.” Konstantinos Genidounias, captain, Olympiacos “Well, I can tell you a lot of things we have to do in order to beat Pro Recco. But at the end, it will come down to our defence. If we can prevent them from scoring many goals, if we can keep them under 10 goals then we’ll have a chance. We have been preparing for this and I think we can do it. Of course,

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Champions League Final Four 2024, Malta – Facts & Figures

• All four teams arrive in Malta after successful title defences in their respective home leagues. In their domestic championships, all four sides produced undefeated runs before landing another title. • At last year’s Champions League, Recco managed to tie a record that had stood for more than 50 years as the Italian giant claimed the trophy for the third time in a row. Beforehand, this had happened only once in the history of the competition when Mladost Zagreb clinched the triple in 1968-69-70. Recco completed the three-peat last season: 2021-22-23. The Italians are set to become the first team to land the most prestigious trophy four times in a row. Besides this, there were seven more title defences: Partizan Beograd (YUG) – 1966, 1967 Partizan Beograd (YUG) – 1975, 1976 Spandau 04 (FRG) – 1986, 1987 Mladost Zagreb (CRO) – 1990, 1991 Jadran Split (CRO) – 1992, 1993 Posillipo Napoli (ITA) – 1997, 1998 Pro Recco (ITA) – 2007, 2008 • Recco claimed their 11th CL title last year to further cement their top rank on the all-time winners’ list. Partizan Beograd (SRB) and Mladost Zagreb (CRO) are tied second with seven victories apiece. • Olympiacos have won the CL twice (2002, 2018), while Ferencvaros have claimed the title on one occasion (2019). Novi Beograd is yet to reach the top, though they contested the final in the last two seasons, but lost to Recco both times (and painfully, in their home pool in Belgrade). Semi-finals Recco v Olympiacos • The teams already met in the Group Stage as Recco won both encounters but only by a single goal in Athens (11-10) and at home (12-11). • Ironically, Recco is the only team in the F4 which couldn’t make the domestic double (winning the championship and the cup), after losing in a penalty shootout in the cup final against Brescia. Still, Recco is yet to lose a match in regular time in this season (unlike the other three sides). • Olympiacos enjoyed an almost spotless run back home, they remained undefeated but had one draw in the whole season – against Vouliagmeni in the first game in the league final (won by penalties). Their regular time losses came in the Champions League, two against Recco (see above) and against Ferencvaros in the first round of the Quarterfinal Stage. • The last team that managed to beat Recco in the Champions League finals was indeed Olympiacos. They upset the Italians in back-to-back years, defeating them in the 2018 final in Genova, then in the 2019 semi-final in Hannover. That was Recco’s last loss in the season-ending showcase, in the last three editions they went 9/9 in the Final Eight matches. • Apart from fielding the very best players of the two respective national teams, Italy and Greece, Recco has a Greek in its line-up, centre-forward Konstantinos Kakaris who played for Olympiacos between 2018 and 2021. Recco also has the best US and Australian player in its team, Ben Hallock and Aaron Younger. The lefties in both sides are the lethal weapons from Hungary’s 2023 world champion side: Gergo Zalanki at Recco and Marton Vamos at Olympiacos. Croatian goalie of Olympiacos, Marko Bijac was Recco’s netminder between 2018 and 2021. • The teams are coached by Croatians: Sandro Sukno leads Recco, Hrvoje Koljanin is in charge in Piraeus. Head-to-head: 7-3 Group Stage (this season): 11-10, 12-11. 2022-23: 10-9, 7-9. 2020-21: 14-8, 13-6. 2018-19, semi-final: 11-12. 2017-18, final: 7-9. 2014-15: 12-8, 17-12 FTC-Telekom v Novi Beograd • When they met in the Group Stage over the previous two seasons, they never ceased to entertain the fans as they produced high-scoring games with both teams reaching double digits in all four matches. • Ferencvaros lost one match in the season so far, to Olympiacos in Piraeus, in the Quarter Final Stage. At home, they won each and every game they played, becoming the first team in Hungary since 1983 to land the title with a perfect record. • NBG also posted 100% runs in Serbia both in the league and the cup, though had a loss in the Adriatic League (against Jadran Split) and three in the Champions League (vs Sabadell in the Group Stage and against Recco in the QF Stage) • Just like in the other semi, here the two sides feature the key players of Hungary’s and Serbia’s respective national teams and boast a handful of outstanding foreigners. Fradi has five aces from abroad, including Dusan Mandic who arrived from Novi Beograd last summer, plus two Italians (Edoardo di Somma, Luca Damonte), a Russian (Daniil Merkulov) and a Greek, Stylianos Argyropoulos. He’ll face his compatriots Angelos Vlachopoulos and Dimitrios Skoumpakis, and NBG also has the best Spanish player Alvaro Granados on board and an Italian goalie, Francesco de Michelis. • NBG also has some Hungarian ties – coach Zivko Gocic spent 10 years in Hungary as a player and a coach (speaks fluent Magyar), and when he won the Champions League with Szolnok in 2017, he played together with Denes Varga, who is now the captain of Fradi. Indeed, that team featured players who are part of the show now in the four participating sides: among the 2017 champions from Szolnok, Zivko Gocic is the coach of Novi Beograd alongside with centre-forward Andrija Prlainovic, Denes Varga is the captain of Ferencvaros, Aaron Younger is the driver of Recco and Marton Vamos plays for Olympiacos. • This season, NBG was the only team which did not lose to Recco in the Champions League in the regular time – at home they forced a draw (coming back from six goals down) but the Italians prevailed in the shootout. Head-to-head: 3-1 2022-23: 13-14, 14-12 – 2021-22: 14-11, 11-10

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Recco and FTC in pole position to finish top

The final round of the Quarter Final Stage shall determine the pairings of the semis in the Final Four. The top spot is at stake in both groups, with title-holders Recco and 2019 champions Ferencvaros both enjoying a point advantage, but they face challenging home matches against Novi Beograd and Barceloneta respectively. Champions League Quarter Final StageFixtures, Day 6 (all times are CET)Group A (Wednesday)19.00 Pro Recco (ITA) v Novi Beograd (SRB)20.00 CN Marseille (FRA) v VK Jadran Split (CRO)Standings: 1. Recco 14, 2. Novi Beograd 13, 3. Marseille 3, 4. Jadran 0 Group B (Tuesday)18.30 Olympiacos Piraeus (GRE) v AN Brescia (ITA)20.00 FTC-Telekom (HUN) v Zodiac CNA Barceloneta (ESP)Standings: 1. FTC 12, 2. Olympiacos 11, 3. Barceloneta 7, 4. Brescia 0 We already know the four advancing sides, but their final rankings in the Quarter Final Stage and consequently the pairings of the semi-finals are yet to be decided. Before the last day, Pro Recco and Ferencvaros both hold a single-point advantage ahead of their respective challengers, Novi Beograd and Olympiacos. In Group A, it all comes down to the grand clash of Recco and NBG in the magnficent pool of Sori, nestled in the Ligurian coastline. Recco can even afford a shootout loss to keep their top position, while the Serbs need a ‘three-pointer’ to pass the title-holders. On Day 3, the Italians blew a six-goal lead and left the decision to the penatlies where at least they bagged two points – this gives them the advantage before this last game. Ferencvaros are in a different situation as they play against Barceloneta which bowed out in the penultimate round after falling to beat Olympiacos at home. On the same day, the Hungarians experienced how hard a clash could become against a rival which had nothing to lose as they barely downed Brescia. For sure, the Spaniards want to send a sign that despite their utter disappointment, they are still a formidable team. The hosts have to be ready for that as keeping the top spot would most probably mean they avoid a semi-final showdown with Recco. This may put them under some pressure as they don’t have fond memories from the last three editions – they met Recco in the 2021 final, the 2022 semi-final and the 2023 quarter-final and the eventual champions never left them a chance. By the time of the swim-off in Budapest, FTC will already know the result from Piraeus where Olympiacos entertain Brescia. The Greeks may have less headaches as the Italians have had darker days recently – besides losing all five Quarter Final matches so far, they also failed to make the domestic cup final. The fourth match between Marseille and Jadran, in Group A, will be a game of pride. While the Croats are yet to win a match in this stage, they will probably be more focused on their gruelling national title series against Jug that’s coming up. Marseille, meanwhile, have already ticked that box, after retaining their French title and all they wish is to finish the season on a high note at home. You can follow all the action and results from the Champions League Quarter Final Stage live on the dedicated European Aquatics Champions League website. And stream every game live, or watch the replays, by clicking here. Ticket details for the Final Four in Malta (5th-7th June) can be found by clicking here.  Pre-game stats Group A (Wednesday) Pro Recco (ITA) v VK Novi Beograd (SRB)REC: WWWWW15-8 Marseille (h), 13-10 Jadran (a), 15-14 (pen) NBG (a), 12-10 Marseille (a), Jadran 18-9 (h)NBG: WWLWW15-11 Jadran (h), 14-13 Marseille (a), 14-15 (pen) Recco (h), 15-10 Jadran (a), Marseille 13-10 (h)Head-to-head: 3-0Day 3: 10-10, pen: 5-4. 2022-23: 14-11 (final). 2021-22: 13-13, pen: 4-3 (final) CN Marseille (FRA) v VK Jadran Split (CRO)MAR: LLWLL8-15 Recco (a), 13-14 NBG (h), 14-12 Jadran (a), 10-12 Recco (h), NBG 10-13 (a)JAD: LLLLL11-15 NBG (a), 10-13 Recco (h), 12-14 Marseille (h), 10-15 NBG (h), Recco 9-18 (a)Head-to-head: 1-0Day 3: 14-12 Group B (Tuesday) FTC Telekom Budapest (HUN) v Zodiac CNA Barceloneta (ESP)FTC: WWWLW11-9 Olympiacos (h), 11-9 Brescia (a), 10-8 Barceloneta (a), 8-10 Olympiacos (a), 9-8 Brescia (h)BAR: WLLWL12-8 Brescia (h), Olympiacos 7-10 (a), 8-10 FTC (h), 12-5 Brescia (a), 18-19 (pen) Olympiacos (h)Head-to-head: 4-3 (1d)Day 3: 10-8. 2021-22: 7-17, 12-12. 2020-21: 8-7, 11-10. 2018-19: 5-8, 8-9 (prelims), 9-7 (SF). Olympiacos Piraeus (GRE) v AN Brescia (ITA)OLY: LWWWW9-11 FTC (a), 10-7 Barceloneta (h), 13-12 Brescia (a), 10-8 FTC (h), 19-18 (pen) Barceloneta (a)BRE: LLLLL8-12 Barceloneta (a), 9-11 FTC (h), 12-13 Olympiacos (h), 5-12 Barceloneta (h), 8-9 FTC (a)Head-to-head: 7-1 (1d)Day 3: 13-12. 2018-19: 8-7 (QF). 2017-18: 7-6,13- 6. 2016-17: 10-13, 8-4 (prelims), 8-5 (5-6th). 2014-15: 9-9, 8-6

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Three-horse race for last two Final Four spots

The penultimate day in the Champions League Quarter Final Stage offers two thrilling clashes on Friday. In Group B, where the race for the Final Four spots is wide open, the big clash of Barceloneta and Olympiacos might be decisive, just like the game between Ferencvaros and Brescia – but it might happen that only the last day will determine the two qualifing sides. In Group A, Recco and Novi Beograd have already reached safe waters. Champions League Men’s Water Polo Quarter Final StageFixtures, Day 5 (Local times shown) Group A (Saturday)18.00 Pro Recco (ITA) v Jadran Split (CRO)19.45 VK Novi Beograd (SRB) v CN Marseille (FRA)Standings: 1. Recco 11, 2. Novi Beograd 10, 3. Marseille 3, 4. Jadran 0 Group B (Friday)18.30 Zodiac CNA Barceloneta (ESP) v Olympiacos Piraeus (GRE)20.00 FTC-Telekom (HUN) v AN Brescia (ITA)Standings: 1. Olympiacos 9, 2. FTC 9, 3. Barceloneta 6, 4. Brescia 0 Saturday night will have less fever than Friday evening’s wide-open Group B action, when the two remaining Final Four Spots may be booked – but the final decision might also be delayed till the very last day. While in Group A, where the teams are playing on Saturday, only the No. 1 rank is at stake, as both Recco and Novi Beograd have already qualified. There are several scenarios in the three-horse Group B race for this Friday. One may see both F4 berths taken – if Olympiacos, which is on a winning streak, beat Barceloneta and FTC downs Brescia, then the two victors will advance. A three-point win for Barceloneta would delay the decision to the last day, even if Ferencvaros beats Brescia. In this case, even a three-way tie could be possible with all the maths involved, so the gap of the Spaniards’ win might also be crucial, as they lost by three to Olympiacos in Greece. The big match in Barcelona could go either way, as both sides are strong enough and have all the quality to make the cut, so most probably the finer details of the contest will decide the outcome. The Greeks have now won three matches in a row, as they brought down Ferencvaros in the last round of games, which was a real feat considering the Hungarians were unbeaten in the season before their visit to Piraeus. Barceloneta lost back-to-back CL matches (on day 2 and 3), something that’s rarely happened to them, which put the team in a challeging situation, but the way they demolished Brescia on day 4 shows they’ve regained some ground before the showdown with Olympiacos (and potentially with Ferencvaros in the last round). Ferencvaros are still in the best position as they have two home matches remaining and the first one is against Brescia, the team with four losses in a row. Still, the Italians have two faces – one which landed them the national Cup against Recco in the final. And the other one which they showed against Barceloneta in their last home CL match where they were beaten badly, 5-12, a barely seen scene in their pool. Alredy dropped out from the race for the Final Four, Brescia might look an easy target, but without any pressure, they can also cause some trouble for the Hungarians, who need to recover from the loss in Piraeus, their very first one after a 33-game winning streak. In Group A, the two favourites, already in safe waters, play at home and form suggests they’re both likely to add another victory to their respective tallies. Recco face Jadran, which lost all four matches and seem to lack the necesarry tightness in defending (they’ve conceded 57 goals, the most at this stage). Novi Beograd entertain Marseille – but again, playing without pressure, the French can be a really tough opponent, but the Serbs are seeking the top rank in the group, so they won’t let this match go either. You can follow all the Champions League Men’s Water Polo Quarter Final Stage action and results live on the dedicated European Aquatics Champions League website. Pre-game stats – Champions League Quarter Final Stage, Day 5 Group APro Recco (ITA) v VK Jadran Split (CRO)REC: WWWW15-8 Marseille (h), 13-10 Jadran (a), 15-14 (pen) NBG (a), 12-10 Marseille (a)JAD: LLLL11-15 NBG (a), 10-13 Recco (h), 12-14 Marseille (h), 10-15 NBG (h)Head-to-head: 3-0Day 2: 13-10. 2022-23: 14-7, 13-9 VK Novi Beograd (SRB) v CN Marseille (FRA)NBG: WWLW15-11 Jadran (h), 14-13 Marseille (a), 14-15 (pen) Recco (h), 15-10 Jadran (a)MAR: LLWL8-15 Recco (a), 13-14 NBG (h), 14-12 Jadran (a), 10-12 Recco (h)Head-to-head: 4-0Day 2: 14-13. 2022-23: 11-4, 17-13; 2021-22: 16-10 (QF) Group B Zodiac CNA Barceloneta (ESP) v Olympiacos Piraeus (GRE)BAR: WLLW12-8 Brescia (h), Olympiacos 7-10 (a), 8-10 FTC (h), 12-5 Brescia (a)OLY: LWWW9-11 FTC (a), 10-7 Barceloneta (h), 13-12 Brescia (a), 10-8 FTC (h)Head-to-head: 5-4 (2d)Day 2: 7-10. 2022-23: 9-7, 10-5; 2021-22: 7-3, 4-8; 2020-21: 22-9 (QF); 2019-20: 15-9, 11-11; 2018-19: 10-14, 7-7, 4-6 (SF) FTC-Telekom Budapest (HUN) v AN Brescia (ITA)FTC: WWWL11-9 Olympiacos (h), 11-9 Brescia (a), 10-8 Barceloneta (a), 8-10 Olympiacos (a)BRE: LLLL8-12 Barceloneta (a), 9-11 FTC (h), 12-13 Olympiacos (h), 5-12 Barceloneta (h)Head-to-head: 6-4 (2d)Day 2: 11-9. 2022-23: 4-8, 10-6, 9-8 (5-8th); 2021-22: 8-8, 8-6, 14-12 (bronze); 2020-21: 6-9, 7-10, 14-12 (SF); 2018-19: 8-8, 5-10

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Five talking points from Quarter Final Stage Day 4

Here are five takeaways from the fourth day of the Quarter Final Stage in the men’s water polo Champions League. 1. Two Final Four spots taken, and a three-horse race in full swing Before the start of the Quarter Final Stage – which might be considered as an ‘expanded’ Final Eight, staged across six thrilling rounds – it was clear the four winners in the Group Stage would be the top contenders for the Final Four spots. Plus, Olympiacos among the runners-up, as the Greeks had to settle for second place in Group B behind title-holders Recco. Now, after four rounds, the finalists of the last two editions, Recco and Novi Beograd fulfilled those expectations by already booking their respective spots in the Final Four from Group A. At the same time, Ferencvaros, Barceloneta – the other two group stage winners – and Olympiacos are entangled in a three-horse race in Group B, where the outcome is unpredictable with two rounds remaining. Olympiacos just overtook Fradi in the race and sits on top, however, it’s still a likely scenario that all three sides will finish with 12 points. In that case, the rule for a three-way tie shall apply, where only the results obtained against each other shall be considered, but once the first ranked team is picked, only the two results between the remaining sides will count to decide second place. Just to show how tight the race is, Olympiacos is ranked first by virtue of scoring more goals in total than Ferencvaros (42 to 40) as the results between the two won’t decide anything (both won by two at home) and the goal-difference is the same, as of now. So, stay tuned for the last two rounds! 2. Late surges put Olympiacos and Fradi on even When dicussing Olympiacos and Ferencvaros being locked on nine points in Group B, it’s worth noting that in both their head-to-head matches in the Quarter Final Stage, the winning side held a four-goal lead approaching the finish, but it was halved by late surges. Fradi, on Day 1, led 11-7 with 1:25 remaining, but the Greeks could pull back two, thanks to back-to-back goals in a span of 47 seconds. Just two days ago, Olympiacos were in full command in the fourth, leading 10-6 with 2:26 on the clock, but the Hungarians hit two in 29 seconds to get back to level at least on ‘aggregate’. So, if these two teams finish on equal points, then the total goals scored shall decide the rankings. Note, that Fradi, losing for the first time after 33 matches in the season, have two home matches remaining (v Brescia, then Barceloneta), while Olympiacos are away to Barceloneta next – in a do-or-die game – before hosting Brescia on the final day. 3. Ben Hallock, The Winning Man What insiders have been talking about for a while, that Ben Hallock has become arguably the best centre-forward on the planet, was highlighted once more this week, as Recco managed to take down Marseille in an extremely hard-fought contest. Scoring from the centre, against defenders with equal or more strength, is always special in today’s game. Hallock did that not once, not twice, but three times in Marseille, and each of his goals was a tremendous boost for Recco, as they otherwise struggled in attack. His first gave the title-holders the lead four seconds from time in the first period. The second, while it was somewhat lucky as the American hit it from a rebound, came in a crucial phase when Marseille led 5-4 and had a man-up to double their lead – Recco killed that and Hallock was on target in the next possession to level the score. Then came the third, a mighty backhander, in the most heated moment of the fourth quarter, when the hosts had just come back from two goals down and equalised by scoring two in 32 seconds. After levelling at 10-10, the crowd erupted, the French smelled blood – but then came Hallock, and within 13 seconds he hit that magnificent goal which silenced the stands and put Recco back on track, and ultimately sent the team to the Final Four. 4. Bouncing back, a Novi Beograd habit Though among the four Group Stage winners, Novi Beograd were perhaps the least convincing, as even their progression to the Quarter Final Stage was in question at times, especially after they suffered a shock home defeat against Sabadell. But the Serbs – fuelled by extremely talented foreign aces, like Alvaro Granados and Angelos Vlachopoulos – have an amazing ability to bounce back and deliver wins in crucial moments. That landed them on top of their group in December and this secured their ticket to Malta in the current stage. Downing Marseille in a nail-biter was the key as they were trailing by two early in the fourth, but scored two in the last four minutes while conceding none to win 13-14. Also, overcoming a six-goal deficit against Recco and gaining at least a point at home was the other big result which opened the gate for them to book their ticket to Malta in June. Handling Jadran Split seems to be a routine job for the Serbs – they hit 15 against the Croats both at home and now in Split as well. 5. Big rush, big win When a team can gain some steam and stage a big rush, it can prove to be decisive at this level. Not every time, but on Day 4, three matches were decided by great surges of the eventual winners. Barceloneta had a mighty 0-7 rush in Brescia, as they completely outplayed the Italians while galloping to a 3-12 lead after 3-5 and shutting out the hosts for 14:29 minutes. Novi Beograd smashed Jadran with a 0-5 blast in the third period. It took only 3:31 minutes to decide the match in Split – here the Croats even went for a goalie change, but it didn’t

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