Spain ruin Croatia’s party to finally win first European gold

Credit: European Aquatics

With an unbelievable 3-0 finish in the last four minutes, Spain stunned the hosts Croatia to clinch its first-ever European title and book its spot at the Olympics. Croatia dominated most of the match, but failed to score in the last eight minutes while two breath-taking action goals, especially the winning backhander, from Alvaro Granados, spoiled the home side’s party. Italy took the bronze medal after downing the young but a bit exhausted Hungarians.

Final: Croatia v Spain 10-11
Bronze medal: Hungary v Italy 7-12

For 5th place: Greece v Montenegro 15-10
For 7th place: Serbia v Romania 18-7

Tournament Awards
Best Goalkeeper: Marko Bijac (Croatia)
MVP: Alvaro Granados (Spain)

Final Rankings: 1. Spain 2. Croatia 3. Italy 4. Hungary 5. Greece 6. Montenegro 7. Serbia 8. Romania 9. France 10. Georgia 11. Netherlands 12. Germany 13. Slovakia 14. Slovenia 15. Malta 16. Israel

Credit: European Aquatics

Spain broke Croatia’s incredible run at their home Europeans – the hosts won gold in Zagreb 2010 and Split 2022 and was all set to complete the treble, but they blew a two-goal lead in the fourth period.

The Spaniards staged a memorable comeback, and an out-of-this-world backhander by Alvaro Granados, the tournament’s MVP, proved to be the winner late on (10-11) and secured their first-ever European title and a ticket to the 2024 Olympics.

“It was a crazy game, as Croatia played very well, they controlled all of the game in the first three quarters,” said Spain head coach David Martin after winning the gold.

“We had a lot of moments and chances to score, but when we got within one goal, then the difference became two straight away.

“However, in the last quarter, we still believed in the victory, and the players were fighting until the very end.

“I thought we had a lot more energy than the Croatians at the end and we were able to make some very good shots.

“I’m so happy with the result and with all my players.

“I don’t think this was our best performance, but we stayed strong till the end and we made history together.”

As the epic final started, it was clear both teams weren’t going to hold anything back, especially the Croats – they really got going in the opening period.

At the beginning, it was a back-and-forth match, a shooting contest, no holds barred.

Indeed, the hosts could beat Unai Aguirre five times in the first eight minutes, one more than the Italians did in the semis over four periods.

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For a while, the Spaniards matched the Croats’ high-octane game, even leading after a great action shot from Alberto Munarriz at 2-3, only to see their rivals hit back with three straight goals.

Ante Vukicevic netted one from the perimeter, Luka Bukic made a steal and turned it into a one-on-one, followed by Marko Jerinic-Kragic’s counter – all this in 64 seconds, for 5-3.

An emergency time-out from the Spanish bench at least halted the hosts’ rush, but their offence was still struggling as they missed two more man-ups before the first break.

Bukic fired in another one, again from the perimeter, and after Marko Bijac stopped another ball in man-down, all looked bright for the Croats at 6-3.

However, it was too early – and the Spaniards found their game shortly after.

A blast from Munarriz, a killed man-down, and one more huge ‘zone-breaker’ from Marc Larumbe silenced the crowd in just 72 seconds.

Spain had two possessions to go even, neither worked and a counter reset the two-goal gap as Bukic netted his third for 7-5.

A nicely played man-up kept the challengers close, Alejandro Bustos could send it home from 2m and then Perrone’s steal denied the home side’s 6 on 5 shortly before the middle break.

At halftime, stats mirrored the balanced encounter – 16 shots apiece, six saves apiece, only one more on target from the Croats (13-12), that separated the sides in the first sixteen minutes.

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A wasted man-up from the hosts and a brilliant individual action by Bernat Sanahuja from the ensuing counter levelled the score right away in the third, then a turnover was called against the Spaniards in a man-up (a second time in the match), but the Croats gave away the ball, so Bijac had to come up with a fine save from a 6m shot.

The first three minutes were anything but similar to what the Croats did in the first half, so coach Ivica Tucak called a time-out to make order.

It worked, they gained a 6 on 5 and Marinic-Kragic’s pinpointer was too good and sent the hosts ahead once more at 8-7, and also ended their 7-min long scoring break.

Their defence also tightened, forcing the Spaniards into impossible-to-make-it shots, leaving easy catches for Bijac.

A block was crucial to deny Croatia’s following man-up, while Granados made a magnificent assist to set up Roger Tahull on 2m in their 6 on 5, so it stood 8-8, instead of 9-7.

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Still, it was 10-8 before the final period as Marko Zuvela, though the ball didn’t fly properly, could still beat Aguirre from the back in a man-up.

Bijac then made another stop and Loren Fatovic hit another one from 7m with 0:04 on the clock, despite surrounded by three defenders.

This was a real morale-booster, to gain a two-goal advantage in 50 seconds in the last minute of the penultimate quarter, which also generated a big noise around the pool.

The bar saved Spain from Bukic’s shot early in the fourth, but Perrone couldn’t beat Bijac despite having a clean shot.

Aguirre also caught one, but Granados hit the block in Spain’s man-up and these misses were more painful at this phase when the home side still held the two-goal lead.

Tahull missed one from close under pressure – the Spaniards hotly-disputed that no penalty was called – then the Croatian assistant coach was red-carded during a Spanish time-out, called upon a 6 on 5.

Sanahuja’s bouncer was sharp and precise, Spain was back to 9-8 with 3:52 on the clock.

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Spain had four shots to make it even, three within a possession, and Granados finally showed a real one for 10-10, with 1:38 remaining.

No call came in the next Croatian possession, they didn’t take a shot, the Spaniards went for it, and something incredible happened – with no real danger emerging, Granados drove to the wing, then, pressed by a defender, went for a backhander, something he barely does…

And it found the back of the net with 48 seconds to go.

It completely froze the party in Zagreb – Spain took the lead and also left the Croats stranded.

They gained a last man-up, for a full 20 seconds, but were unable to play it smartly, a block denied them and soon the Spaniards erupted in joy.

A 3-0 rush in the last period – indeed in the last four minutes – was a magnificent way to seal their first-ever European title and their Olympic ticket to Paris.

Credit: European Aquatics

Despite the win, Spain captain Felipe Perrone was very honest with his comments after taking the gold in such dramatic late fashion.

“I think Croatia was the better team today, but we won – a final is always unpredictable,” he said.

“We won and qualified for Paris. The last goal by Granados was amazing. He is a genius. We never stopped believing we can win.

“We will celebrate and then start getting ready for Doha.”

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As the home fans made their way home after such a disappointing end, Croatia head coach Ivica Tucak commented, “I don’t know what to say… The team played well, at least for three periods.

“We did the best we could. Spain is a fantastic team, they didn’t stop fighting.

“At the end, we somewhat stopped, we didn’t really do anything in attack, and they are a team which can win a game in a way like this.”

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Marko Bijac had similar feelings and reflected on his team’s missed chances in his post-game analysis.

“It is hard to make conclusions, as I’m still hot-headed,” said Bijac.

“The regret for this missed opportunity stays on… I think we were better.

“Our concentration dropped in the last quarter. We stopped being aggressive in offence, we stopped shooting.

“They punished our mistakes. My Best Goalkeeper Award is not a consolation. We all dreamed of winning the trophy and the gold medal.

“But I would like to thank everything for the fans. The quarter-final in Doha should be enough to qualify for the Olympics. We must rest and now analyse our mistakes.”

Credit: European Championships

Earlier, the bronze medal match was a no-contest between Hungary and Italy as the Settebello came up with another flawless performance, just like they did against Montenegro in the quarterfinals.

They also left the haunting memories of their semis with Spain behind, winning comfortably 7-12 to take revenge for their stunning five-goal loss against the young Magyars in the group stage.

“We showed two really different faces in this tournament, especially in attack,” said Italy coach Alessandro Campagna after securing the bronze.

“I think our defences worked well in each match, even against Spain, but our offence had a bad day on every other day.

“Today, we did well again, our shots were good, we played with a necessary speed and concentration, and this time it was our attack which made us even more confident in defending too.”

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The Hungarians ran out of steam for their last game, struggling with viruses, but mostly with the superior individual skills of the Italians.

“We knew before the tournament that if we bumped into an elite team with a complete line-up, producing its best, while we were below our level, we could have a match like this where many things fell apart,” commented Hungary coach Zsolt Varga after the loss.

“It happened on the last day, where we couldn’t come up with a performance like the ones we had in our previous matches.

“I hate to look for excuses, but this time it was really awful to see that more and more players were struggling with the viruses and that limited their capabilities.

“I won’t tell you that at full strength we would have beaten Italy today, as they played great, they are one of the best teams in the world with a complete and experienced line-up.

“I would have just wished to see how long we could have stayed in the game with the usually high energy levels.”

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In the match, it took just 73 seconds for the Italians to score more goals than in the first half of the prelims – they trailed 1-3 at halftime then – and today they rushed to a 1-4 lead in eight minutes as the young Magyars were unable to put up any resistance in defence.

They had a better spell in the second when they netted back-to-back goals and had some good defending, but they couldn’t cut the gap further than 3-6, and after missing a couple of chances, Gonzago Echenique hit his third from the perimeter and Alessandro Velotto could send home a lucky rebound for 3-8.

At stages, it looked really bad for the Hungarians, who conceded nine action goals, many easy ones from the perimeter, something they barely let their rivals do before.

The Italians didn’t even need their lethal counters as their blasts did enough damage, Andrea Fondelli and Giacomo Cannella fired in some big ones as Italy went 4-11 at one point.

Hungary’s youngsters fought to restore some pride and by the end they could reduce the gap to the same five goals they had won by a week ago (the two sides can stage another showdown soon as they are in the same group in Doha).

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“We started the right way, hard as in the semi-final, too, but with a lot more focus,” beamed Italy’s Edoardo Di Somma.

“We wanted this bronze medal badly.

“I’m very happy with this match, this is the right way to finally go for the Olympic berth (at the Worlds).

“I think we played well in this tournament, Spain was a really strong team, played really well, so we just need to further improve our defence and now qualify for Paris in Doha.”

Italy return to the podium for the first time since 2014 – they lost two bronze medal matches en route, in 2018 and 2022 – while Hungary had to settle for the fourth place after playing back-to-back finals in the last two editions.

Since the knockout phase was introduced in 1989, Hungary have now played seven bronze medal matches, winning five – with the only other defeat also coming in this complex, in 2010.

Despite the defeat, head coach Varga believes there are lots of positives to take from his team’s performaces in Croatia.

“At the end, the overall impression is absolutely positive,” he reflected.

“We should consider the tournament as a whole and based on that, I think we can be proud of this team.

“The youngsters gained a lot of experience, grew game by game, and this was exactly why we came here with this squad.”

Hungary’s Vince Vigvari, meanwhile, echoed his coach’s words, “If you look at the big picture, you can say we had a couple of very good games where we could be very proud of our performances.

“We’ve had a good tournament, we came with the youngest-ever squad for Hungary in the Europeans’ history, so I’m really proud of my team.

“But, obviously, we are a bit disappointed to finish the European Championships with two such tough losses.”

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As for the lower classifications, those were considered as the first step of the World Championships preparations.

Montenegro arrived a period later than the 5th/6th final started and that determined the outcome.

Greece took a flying start, leading 3-0 deep into the opening quarter and went 6-2 up after eight minutes.

The Montenegrins started climbing back in the middle two periods, as the Greeks also lost some of their composure, especially in the third when they remained scoreless for more than six minutes.

Over this phase, Kanstantin Averka put away two extra-man attempts to bring the hope back for his side as they trailed only 9-7 before the last period.

What’s more, Miroslav Perkovic made it 9-8 right away in the fourth, but two 6m blasts, from Stylianos Argyropoulos and Nikolaos Gkillas in 43 seconds killed the Montenegrins’ momentum.

And with 3:53 on the clock, the game was gone as the Greeks hit two more in 31 seconds for 13-9, which broke their rivals for good.

Greece finished 5th, just like in Split and they are yet to break their curse at the continental showcase as apart from two 4th place finish (from 1999 and 2016), they not only missed the podium but barely made the top-flight.

Montenegro is also looking for the good old days, after reaching the final three times upon their first five appearances, but in the last four editions they have had a bronze (from 2020), and 6th and 7th place finishes.

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Serbia finished seventh after an easy win against Romania, who are currently not on the level with the ‘magnificent seven’.

Romania managed to break into the elite by winning the crossovers (against Georgia), however, their last three matches showed lots of work is still to be done before they truly belong with this class.

They were downed 7-24 by Spain in the quarters, then 11-18 by Montenegro in the 5-8th classification, and on the last day they trailed 8-3 already at halftime against Serbia.

Not much changed in the second half, the Serbs were dominating – the number of shots on target was 23-13 –, and they added ten more goals to put even more gloss on the win.

Ever since their grand generations medalled at nine consecutive Europeans between 2001 and 2018 (winning seven, including four in a row at the end), they’ve now failed to make the podium at the last three editions, though this team hasn’t got the same individual quality and depth.

They still need to gear up as in two years’ time, Belgrade shall host the 2026 edition.