Serbia captured its third straight European title and won its 6th gold in the last eight editions of the European Championships. In front of approximately 18,000 fans – the highest turnout ever at a water polo match in modern times – the hosts managed to overcome the Montenegrin fighters who were on equal terms with the champions but succumbed to the pressure in the finish. Hungary clinched the bronze, its 24th medal in the event’s history.
If we wrote on the opening day that water polo was lifted to a new level in the Kombank Arena, then it’s reached unprecedented heights on Saturday when all available places were filled in the venue, people stood on the terraces all around after the set-up had been transformed and almost the entire seating capacity became available. According to the organisers, with everyone counted (including accredited representatives) more than 18,000 spectators watched the final of the 32nd Europeans – a new world record of attendance in aquatics in the modern era.
The final itself was well worthy to the breath-taking environment: for the first time in this event Serbia was forced to take on a real battle. What’s more, they fell behind by two goals for the first time in ages as the Montenegrins stunned them in the opening period, jumping to a 1-3 lead with goals from two 6 on 5s and a fine blast from Aleksandar Ivovic. Andrija Prlainovic’s huge shot got the crowd alive and in 50 seconds it was even, as Milos Cuk put away a double man-up (3-3). But this didn’t cool the Serbs’ heads down, they missed another 6 on 4, and by half-time Montenegro went ahead again after Aleksandar Radovic buried an extra.
In the third the Serbian equalised as Dusan Mandic collected his own ‘rebound’ and resent the ball to the goal with a brave shot. Then the score was frozen for long minutes, both sides were too tense to play a well-oiled game, heavy marking also left small room for sparkling attacks. With 2:42 to go the Brguljan cousins delivered a fine combination, Darko tipped in Drasko’s assist for a 4-5 lead, then a man-up was almost denied by the Montenegrins but a rude fault led to another 6 on 5 and this time Filip Filipovic found the back of the net. In no time Darko Brguljan netted his second for 5-6 but Andrija Prlainovic saved the Serbs again with a brilliant shot so it stood 6-6 before the final period. The turning point came early in the fourth, Radovic’s scored from a free-throw but it was disallowed by the refs and at the other end Cuk put the Serbs ahead for the first time. That visibly caught the Montenegrins, they missed a 6 on 5 and soon they were down by two after Dusko Pijeltovic’s shot sneaked in under Scepanovic’s arm. Another man-up gone for the ‘visitors’ and with 3:24 to go it was 9-6 after Nikola Jaksic scored from the hosts’ first really well played 6 on 5. It seemed it’s over, but the Montenegrins launched a last attack, and in a span of 52 seconds they were back, Radovic netted a valid goal and Nikola Janovic put away an extra for 9-8 with 2:16 remaining on the clock.
The Montenegrins had two more possessions, but a block and the post denied them in the first, then a steal ended the contest, what’s more, from the ensuing counter Milan Aleksic secured the Serbians’ win (10-8). Seconds later a huge wave of roars erupted from the stands and a nation went to the seventh heaven once again. The Serbs won their third straight title and the sixth in the last eight editions since 2001. Hungary added a bronze to their treasury after outpowering the Greeks. It was a one- sided contest, the tiring Greek defence couldn’t mark the rival’s huge centre-forwards, and the Magyars were merciless in man-ups and also set up a couple of fine chances to score action goals. They were 11-5 up in the fourth before the Greeks found some consolation and climbed back to 13-10 at the end. Still, the third place went to the Hungarians, it was their 24th podium finish, by far the most in the history of the Europeans.
The medals and the championship trophy were presented by Serbian State President Tomislav Nikolic and LEN President Paolo Barelli and the winning team was later celebrated by thousands at the Old Palace in the downtown of Belgrade. It was just the usual scene in the last three years: this was the 6th consecutive win of the Serbs in the major events, in 2014 they won the World League, the Europeans, the World Cup, in 2015 again the World League, then the World Championships and now the Europeans. And the Olympics are just around the corner.
Results, Day 14
Final: Serbia v Montenegro 10-8
Bronze medal game: Greece v Hungary 10-13
For places 5-6: Spain v Italy 8-7
For places 7-8: Russia v Croatia 5-13
For places 9-10: Romania v France 6-12
For places 11-12: Germany v Netherlands 9-7
Top scorer: Steven Camilleri (MLT) 21 goals
Most Valuable Player (MVP): Andrija Prlainovic (SRB)
Best goalkeeper: Viktor Nagy (HUN)