Two thrilling semi-finals in First Final 4 water polo Champions League in Malta

Recco silenced Olympiacos in the opening quarter of their Final Four water polo semi-final as the Champions League Final Four started dramatically on Wednesday night in Malta.

The title-holders scored two in 72 seconds for an early 2-0 lead while the Greeks couldn’t penetrate Recco’s super-impressive defence.

Indeed, they looked a bit bewildered, and made a couple of basic ball-handling mistakes, though the Italians’ effective defending contributed a lot to the Greek’s struggles.

Olympiacos had a single shot on target, that was denied by Marco del Lungo in a man-down, then Marko Bijac made three saves in Recco’s next 6 on 5, however, once the lefties were back in the pool – they were rested in the previous one –, the door opened again and Francesco Condemi made it 3-0 with 1:39 on the clock.

Olympiacos’ next man-up was gone without a shot, so the Greeks were already 3-0 down and in trouble after eight minutes.

The Greeks were still looking for their first goal in the middle of the second, and not even a time-out helped them to find a breakthrough in their next 6 on 5.

As a small piece of good news, they survived a double man-down before Konstantinos Genidounias finally found the back of the net from the perimeter.

They needed three shots within this possession and almost 13 minutes in total to get on the scoreboard.

Recco hit back immediately, through a devastating wing shot from Aaron Younger, which had the utmost precision for 4-1.

Olympiacos wasted another man-up, their fourth, but after some fine defending, Marton Vamos blasted in a big one from action.

Bijac delivered a huge save in a man-down and the Greeks had a 6 on 5 in the last 16 seconds to get closer in an almost invisible manner, but their passing didn’t work once more.

In extras, they stood 0 for 5, while Recco, despite slowing down somewhat in this period, still led 4-2.

Bijac’s 9th save kicked off the third, and with some luck, Ioannis Fountoulis finally put away a 6 on 5 as his deflected shot passed Del Lungo’s hands.

Soon the scores were even, another man-up, another goal, this time from the 2m line by Alexandros Papanastasiou.

Though the first half saw Recco dominating, Recco lost their momentum and had to start again.

It wasn’t easy as the Greeks’ defence started clicking, as they denied another man-down and had the ball to take the lead, but Del Lungo had an easy catch.

Ben Hallock battled himself to a relatively free position and tipped in Zalanki’s fine assist, but the Greeks also did well in the centre, earned a penalty and Genidounias buried it for 5-5.

Bijac came up with two huge saves in a double man-down – denying Zalanki both times – but he couldn’t do much with Francesco di Fulvio’s perfect bouncer in Recco’s next 6 on 5 – so it stood 6-5.

Olympiacos had two man-ups in the last two minutes, but this time they were unable to have clean shots, while Recco played with patience in their last possession and Younger’s one-timer gave them a 7-5 lead with 0:09 to go – indeed, it was more amazing that the Aussie let the ball fly with 0.4sec remaining on the shot clock.

Ioannis Alafragkis’ close finish in the first possession of the fourth halved the distance immediately, then Recco missed a man-up, but soon Zalanki, after four denied shots, hit a fierce one from action for 8-6.

Next came a VAR review after a hard contact between the centre and the defender, but the call stood, exclusion plus a penalty, which Marton Vamos sent home for 8-7.

In 43 seconds it was 8-8, as Dimitrios Dimou let the ball fly from the perimeter and it bounced in from the woodwork.

A turnover foul was called while Recco was scoring in a man-up, while the Greeks kept their calm and, again with some luck, they took the lead for the first time when Genidounias could push in a rebound from close for 8-9.

The Olympiacos fans were starting to dream a shock was on the cards, but Recco weren’t hitting the panic button just yet, as Francesco di Fulvio fired one in from a 6 on 5 to level, then the block denied the Greeks’ shot in a 6 on 5 with 1:14 to go.

A fine steal gave a chance for Olympiacos, but Vamos, under pressure from time and defenders, sent the ball wide and Recco had a last ball to win the match after a time-out, with 19 seconds to go.

They forced a man-up but a block sent the game to a shootout.

After four buried shots, both sides sent in their respective reserve goalies and that made the difference – indeed, while the Greeks made it ‘silently’, the Italians did it just before Dimou swam to the line to take the shot and the young Greek sent the ball wide, then Condemi buried Recco’s fourth, and Tommaso Negri caught Gkillas’ ball to win it 13-11 and send Recco to their fourth straight final.

The second Champions League semi-final in Malta – between Ferencvaros and Novi Beograd – opened with a shooting contest with the lead exchanging hands constantly.

Vendel Vigvari put away a dying man-up, then Novi Beograd came up with two nicely set-up 6 on 5s with putaways from close.

Dusan Mandic equalised from the perimeter and Szilard Jansik also sent the ball home from 7m for 3-2.

Angelos Vlachopoulos’ shot hit the back of the net from 6m to make it 3-3 and we’d barely made the 5-minute mark.

After some intense battling, a denied man-up by NBG, Stylianos Argyropoulos took back the lead for Fradi from a counter, however, it stood 4-4 as after a big save from Soma Vogel, Dusko Pijetlovic used all his vast experience and physical presence to score the equaliser from the centre, after a corner throw, with just 0.4sec remaining in the quarter.

Vlachopoulos’ sneaking shot surprised Vogel at the beginning of the second and soon NBG doubled their lead as Nikola Lukic’s brilliant blast made it 4-6.

FTC had some problems up front, and needed three and a half minutes to continue scoring, as Edoardo di Somma’s shot made it 5-6 which prompted Zivko Gocic to change his goalie.

Francesco di Michelis came up big immediately with three saves in a row in a man-down, but Vogel also did his best – first his presence alone was enough for Vlachopoulos to overthink his penalty shot which hit the bar.

Then he denied a man-down and Daniil Merkulov finished off a counter for 6-6.

Vogel stopped Filip Filipovic’s rocket in the next man-down, while Merkulov’s nice bouncer in a 6 on 5 put FTC back in the driving seat at 7-6.

This 3-0 run gave them the lead at half-time as Vogel posted his 7th save shortly before the turnaround.

Dusan Mandic, after some mis-targeted shots and a calming rest on the bench, returned with a great shot while Alvaro Granados was around his neck, then Argyropoulos beat the goalie from the right wing in a man-up – so 65 seconds into the third FTC was 9-6 up.

Gocic called a timeout, NGB managed to force a 6 on 5, Vlachopoulos took the shot, Vogel had a hand on it, but the VAR said it was behind the virtual line – so this halted NBG’s scoreless run after 7:20 minutes, then De Michelis stopped Merkulov’s attempt in a 6 on 5.

NBG came even closer, though Filipovic also hit the bar from the penalty line, but soon Marko Radulovic could finish a man-up from close for 9-8.

Though FTC had some struggles, missed another 6 on 5 – here NBG lost Granados with his third major.

Then Mandic had some free space after a turnover foul and it was more than enough for him to make it 10-8.

Filipovic sent the ball home from a trademark 6m shot, but his old pal, fellow Serbian Olympic champion Mandic delivered his fourth in a man-up for 11-9.

It was a big back-and-forth, Skoumpakis had a great finish in a 6 on 5, then Pijetlovic seemed to have equalized but the VAR revealed that shortly before the man-up was called, Filipovic had struck his defender.

For this, the captain was ejected for four minutes, and Mandic buried the penalty – instead of 11-11, it was 12-10 and FTC had a lasting man-up.

At the start of the fourth, Vlachopoulos’ far from smooth lob somehow made its way to the net as Vogel mishandled it.

FTC missed their man-up, then forced a penalty despite playing one man less and Cuk converted this penalty for 12-12.

Merkulov finally managed to score FTC’s first goal in the 4min man-up (apart from the opening penalty), after more than two and a half minutes.

And that was all they could put together as de Michelis made a big save in the next possession, so the 4min man-up brought a 2-2 partial result.

NBG earned a man-up, but the block denied them with 4:10 on the clock.

Mandic missed his next two shots, the second in a 6 on 5 and that seemed to be crucial as NBG managed to equalise.

They had back-to-back 6 on 5s and Cuk sent the ball home from the second for 13-13 with 1:51 to go.

Mandic had another try, again in a 6 on 5, and De Michelis denied him once more, but the Magyars made a steal and went for the winner after a time-out with 0:43 remaining.

No call came for the centre-feed and then it was NBG’s turn to try to score the winner with 19 seconds remaining.

It wasn’t enough, so a shootout commenced in the second semi as well.

With Vogel on board, the Magyars seemed to have a better chance – and indeed he delivered the decisive save, in the last round, headed out Skoumpakis’ ball while the Hungarians buried all their shots.

This was the 9th consecutive shootout at international events where the team of Vogel won by penalties – and Ferencvaros joined Recco to contest the title once again after 2021.

It was also the first time both Champions League semi-finals had been decided by penalties.

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