GWANGJU, South Korea (Reuters) – Former champions Spain and Italy upset more heralded rivals to reach the men’s water polo final at the World Aquatics Championships and qualified for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics after stellar performances on Thursday.
The Spaniards edged holders Croatia 6-5 after beating Olympic and European champions Serbia in the quarter-finals while Italy overcame Hungary 12-10 in a roller-coaster contest thanks to a strong third quarter.
Spain, who won their last title in 2001, face 2011 champions Italy on Saturday when Croatia play Hungary for third place.
Spanish goalkeeper Dani Lopez produced a string of superb saves while his team found chinks in Croatia’s armour to carve out a 4-2 halftime lead.
Strikes by Blai Mallarach and Alvaro Granados gave Spain a four-goal lead at the end of the third period and a late Croatia fightback fell short as they ran out of time.
Maro Jokovic, the game’s top scorer with three goals, cut the deficit to 6-5 with 14 seconds left but Spain held on to the dismay of Croatia captain Andro Buslje.
“It was our worst performance of the tournament as we were totally bereft of ideas in attack,” Buslje told reporters.
“We missed a great chance to book our Olympic berth now but we’ll have another chance in the qualifiers. We have to focus on the bronze medal match now and finish on the podium if we can.”
Hungary, who have three world and nine Olympic titles, appeared to be cruising after converting all of their extra-man shots in the first period to surge into a 4-2 lead.
But the Italians turned the contest around in the second as Francesco Di Fulvio and Argentine-born Gonzalo Echenique secured a 7-5 advantage at halftime.
The Hungarians levelled midway through the third period and then conceded a pair of soft goals as Italy pulled away again and never looked back.
The effervescent Echenique made it 11-9 in the final period with his fourth goal and Stefano Luongo put the game beyond Hungary’s reach in the final minute, sparking wild celebrations on the Italian bench.
Di Fulvio netted three goals for Italy while Niccolo Figari chipped in with two. Marton Vamos, Daniel Angyal and Gergo Zalanki scored two each for the Hungarians.
(Writing by Zoran Milosavljevic; Editing by Ken Ferris)