11 Aug Men's Olympic final preview By: Tim Hartog National Teams, Olympic Games Just as the London 2012 Olympic Games will finish on Sunday, so will do an incredible Olympic waterpolo tournament with Croatia and Italy battling for the elusive gold medal. While the Croatians seemed consistent all tournament long building up a legitimate gold medal contender status, Italy got better and better eventually stunning heavy tournament favorites Serbian in the semi-final on Friday 9-7. Although maybe not the expected final, the game promises to not be less exciting as both teams are well-deserved finalists. Both teams squared off in the group stage already with Croatia as the clear wining side of that encounter: 11-6. And while the Italians ‘suffered’ an additional draw against Greece (7-7), Croatia remained unbeaten. But as the reigning world champions have improved during the tournament, things aren’t exactly the same as they were before the sides third group match. Given the fact that Croatia and Italy for the last time met in a major final at the 2010 European championships, a very interesting final is at stake in the Water Polo Arena. As mentioned, Croatia is just excelling at the right time. After an intense and carefully planned preparation towards London, the recently FINA World League winners are showing great form right from the start of the Olympic tournament and even were able to step up in in the knock-out phase as both USA and Montenegro were beaten in convincing fashion. Almost legendary head coach Ratko Rudic will look to increase his status of grandmaster even more by becoming Olympic champion with Croatia for the first time as being an independent country. The previous best result came in 1996 in Atlanta, USA when Manuel Estiarte and Spain proved to be too strong in the final. Back-up centre-forward Igor Hinic was part of that team already and re-joined this Croatian side on their way to London after previously having announced his retirement as international. So did back-up goalkeeper Frano Vican. With a seventh, tenth and sixth place finish as follow-ups to the silver medal in Atlanta, the Croatian fans are hungry for Olympic success. And with a team that has been together for quite a few years now, the run for gold in London seems like a legitimate one. The Croatians are making a very good impression, on both ends of the field playing as a team with players that know each other and their capabilities very well. It makes a team that defends extremely well and is benifiting from an excellent goalkeeper in great form: 30-year old Josip Pavic. The Mladost-goalie stoud out in both the quarter and semi-final wins with numerous saves that shut down comeback runs from both the USA and Montenegro in the second half. Pavic played 190 minutes so far and made an incredible 76 saves on 106 shots fired at him. That means an impressive 71.7% saving percentage. And as his great form might continue in the final, the Italians will be the third successive team that will have all troubles finding the back of the net, if they’re allowed to an attempt on goal by the Croatian defense. Meanwhile Italy have developed into as much of a gold medal favorites as their opponents in the final as the wins over favorites Hungary (11-9) and Serbia (9-7) in the semis were impressive and well-deserved. The Italians are looking like the team that took the world championship title in 2011 in Shanghai, China playing an incredible final match defeating slight favorites Serbia 8-7. Here in London coach Alessandro Campagna’s squad have shown the much needed improvement throughout the tournament living up to an all-important second week which requires excellent form after a heavy first week of play. But it came just when they needed it. Spain was beaten 7-10 in the final group stage round to secure second place in group A where after the side continued the strong play in both knock-out matches. And just like Croatia, the Italians have relied on an experienced and well-playing goalkeeper: Stefano Tempesti. The 2011 world championships goalkeeper of the tournament is again looking like playing for that title leading his defense and confirming a nice comeback after shoulder surgery kept him out of the 2012 European championships tournament, were Italy finished fourth. The 33-year old is likely to play his final Olympic tournament and could become one of the greatest goalkeepers of all-time in Italy with winning the Olympic title in London. The last time that the Italian side achieved some success on Olympic level was in 1996 as well when the defending champs took the bronze medal in Atlanta. Four years earlier, Italy broke the home crowd’s harts with beating Spain after three extra times in the Barcelona ’92 final. One of the better players then is now the head coach of the team while the head coach of the ’92 Italian squad is leading Croatia in London. Alessandro Campagna will face his former master Ratko Rudic. And just like the Croatians, Italy is looking for great success after fifth, eight and a ninth places finish at the last three Olympics. What stroked in the previous two meetings of Italy was the outside shooting that looked very well. With Pietro Figlioli, who has one of the hardest shots these days, and Maurizio Felugo showing to have their visor well-aimed, the blasts from outside helped them on key moments in both the quarters and semi-finals. They will be needing that once again in the final as Croatia have shown some great defensive work this tournament leading to outside shooting possibilities. On the other end, Italy is equally known for their defense causing a lot of trouble to two favorite sides that both have enough offensive power to trouble any other team usually. Knowing that, we might get into a defensive final with not too many goals, leading to details making the difference; just like in an Olympic final supposed to be. The starting time of the London 2012 gold medal match is 15.50 local time. XXX Olympic Games 2012 at London, Great Britain Schedule Sunday, 12 August - MEN 39. 10.20: United State (L35) vs. Australia (L36) - Classification 7th - 8th place 40. 11.40: Spain (W35) vs. Hungary (W36) - Classification 5th - 6th place 41. 14.30: Montenegro (L37) vs. Serbia (L36) - Bronze Medal Match 42. 15.50: Croatia (W37) vs. Italy (W38) - Gold Medal Match N.b.: Times are London local time. Photos by Henk Swinkels. Top photo by Marcel ter Bals.