Rio de Janeiro, Aug 20, 2016: Water Polo, After twenty years of trying, Serbia finally made it. They had three bronzes and a silver in the past four editions, but now they got rid of their Olympic demons. After a shaky start in the prelims, they blew away all their rivals in the knockout phase, lastly their arch-rivals, the title-holder Croatians, in a one-sided final (the last day saw the largest gap, +4, in the gold medal match). The bronze went to the Italians, while Montenegro had to settle for the 4th place for the third time in succession. Hungary, the only undefeated side of the meet in the regular time, came fifth.
Final : Game 4, 17.50: Croatia v Serbia 7-11 (2-3, 1-3, 2-3, 2-2)
Referees: Georgios Stavridis (GRE), Peter Molnar (HUN)
CROATIA: Josip Pavic, Damir Buric 1, Antonio Petkovic, Luka Loncar, Maro Jokovic, Luka Bukic, Marko Macan, Andro Buslje, Sandro Sukno 3, Ivan Krapic, Andelo Setka 1, Javier Garcia 2, Marko Bijac (GK). Head coach: Ivica Tucak
SERBIA: Branislav Mitrovic, Dusan Mandic 4, Zivko Gocic 1, Sava Randelovic, Milos Cuk, Dusko Pijetlovic 2, Slobodan Nikic 1, Milan Aleksic, Nikola Jaksic, Filip Filipovic 2, Andrija Prlainovic, Stefan Mitrovic 1, Gojko Pijetlovic (GK). Head coach: Dejan Savic
Mission completed. The Serbians finally made it and after 1988 they returned to the top of the podium, though that time it was the big Yugoslavia, Serbs and Croats together. Since that state broke up, the Serbs chased the Olympic glory in vain. Generation of fantastic players tried desperately, won world and European titles, they were close at the Games, but never succeeded.
After an embarrassing 8th place finish in 1996, in 2000 they lost to Hungary 8-7 in the semis. In 2004 they lost to Hungary 8-7 in the final. In 2008 they lost to the USA 10-5 in the semis (a shocker). In 2012 they lost the semis once more, this time to Italy, 7-5. Their head coach, Dejan Savic was part of the first three painful journeys so he knew what to avoid in order to reach the top.
The first week, however, was a nightmare for them. Two ties (v HUN, GRE) and a real shocking loss to Brazil which sent the mighty Serbs to the brink of elimination. A loss to Australia would have meant an end of their dreams and in fact it stood 7-7 with 5:08 to go, before the Serbs clinched it. In two days time they had to bounce back from 2-5 down against Japan, as their last scare in Rio, since then they were back to their devastating form which brought them the 2015 world title, the 2014 and 2016 European titles, four straight World League crowns between 2013 and 2016 and a World Cup win in 2014. In the quarters they downed Spain 10-7 (were 7-3 up already), beat Italy 10-8 (led 9-3 early in the fourth) and beat Croatia 11-7 on the last day.
It was almost as easy as last year’s World Championships final in Kazan. There they won 11-4, led 5-2 at halftime, it was still 7-4 after three periods before the final surge blew the Croats away.
Here the Serbs, playing with one less field player as Milos Cuk had to sit out with an injury, quickly gained a 1-3 lead while the Croats missed two man-ups, though they scored from action a bit later. At 2-3 Croatia had a man-up in the second, missed it again and Slobodan Nikic made it 2-4 from a dying extra. Zivko Gocic’s smart right-handed lob from the right wing was a real boost for the Serbs (2-5), and even though Andelo Setka pulled one back from a man-up, an immediate answer arrived from Dusan Mandic.
It stood 3-6 at halftime, Damir Buric scored for 4-6 early in the third and after a killed Serbian man-up the Croats had a possession to come closer but Luka Bukic’s shot was stopped by Branislav Mitrovic. As it turned out that was the last chance for the Croats to stay in the game. Who else, than Filip Filipovic blasted two devastating goals, in between two more Croatian 6 on 5s were denied, the damage was done at 4-8. At this point perhaps even the Croats were aware what the outcome had to be, especially after Dusan Mandic’s third hit with 11 seconds from time in the third.
In their only final in the recent editions, in 2004 the Serbs led 7-5 before the last period against Hungary – it was 9-5 now, against a visibly broken Croatian team. Two goals came in the first minute of the fourth, one apiece, but the Serbs scored first so the psychological advantage remained on their side. And when Dusan Mandic made it 6-11 with 3:29 to go, it was over. After a save, with 2:30 minutes remaining, goalie Branislav Mitrovic began the celebrations and no one was against it, players at the bench started to congratulate each other. The remaining time quickly passed and when the buzzer went, wild jubilation erupted in the pool and at poolside, too. —- FINA
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