Talking points from the Champions League Final Four

Photo: European Aquatics

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).

Photo: European Aquatics

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.

Photo: European Aquatics

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.

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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.

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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.

Photo: European Aquatics

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.

Photo: European Aquatics