Croatia will aim for back-to-back Olympic gold medals when they take to the pool against world champions Serbia in water polo on Saturday, after both teams advanced with victories in the semi-finals.
Croatia defeated Montenegro 12-8 in the first men’s water polo semi-final to clinch a spot in the gold-medal match and a chance to repeat their gold medal performance at the 2012 London Games.
Serbia, a team which has dominated the sport over the past few years, overcame Italy by 10-8.
The victories set up a much anticipated final between two rival countries who share a border and a regional passion for water polo.
Croatia aims to become just the fourth country ever to retain its Olympic water polo title. The squad from Serbia, who added a European title this year to their world championship title last year, is desperate to prove they are the world’s best on an Olympic stage.
Serbian coach Dejan Savic has said that his team faces considerable pressure to win in Rio, telling reporters before Games match play began that the media back home “are waiting to cut the head off our team if we don’t win the gold”. He added: “We have won everything else, now we want this.”
Serbia certainly came out looking motivated on Thursday, deploying sharp shooting skills and a seamless defence to begin the match with Italy by scoring six unanswered goals.
With dramatic blocks, Serbia’s defenders staved off Italy’s offence by neutralizing players like Matteo Aicardi, a top scorer who has worn a gladiator-style mask after suffering a broken nose early in the tournament.
But Serbia slowed as the 32 minutes of play wore on, allowing Italy to narrow the gap in the final quarter.
In a match notable for aggressive grappling close to the goals, Croatia’s win owed much to deft goalkeeping, and an almost impregnable defence.
Goalkeeper Marko Bijak made several crucial blocks to deny Montenegro’s prolific shooters, saving 10 of 18 shots on goal.
Though Croatia’s attack took fewer shots, they were more often on the money. Croatia’s Andro Buslje scored four times, an 80 percent success rate.
Montenegro’s goalkeepers, by contrast, saved only two of 14 shots during the match.
“It’s always the most important part of the game,” Croatian goalkeeper Bijak said of his team’s superior defences on Thursday. “(Montenegro) have a few very good shooters.”
Only Britain, Hungary and the former Yugoslavia – of which Croatia and Serbia formed a part – have accomplished the feat.
Montenegro will take on Italy for the bronze medal.