© Vojislav Petrovic 08 Jan Belgrade 2016: the preview By: Tim Hartog National Teams, European Championships The start of an Olympic year. An extended tournament that now includes 16 men's and 12 women's teams. 100 games inside the nation's main sports and event hall with 11,000 seats available. Unprecedented and a new experience to even the veteran players. The 2016 European Championships promise to be a spectacle. And behind the race for the European title there is the battle for that one Olympic qualification berth while six more are available to the Olympic Qualification Tournament in Trieste, Italy (April 3-10). In short, a lot is at stake in Belgrade the next two weeks. And keep in mind, all matches will be live streamed at the LEN website (len.eu). Waterpoloworld previews the men's tournament, tells you which players to keep an eye on, and summarises the rules for Olympic qualification and even the 2017 World Championships in Budapest. Who wins the gold? Serbia should be easiest answer. But it's not that easy. Why? Pressure. Yes, the guys were also the red-hot favourites at the 2015 World Championships and simply delivered, but there did not played in front of a full Kombank Arena with home fans. So it will be up to them. If the Dejan Savic coached squad is able to keep its focus, they look simply unstoppable in recent times. If not, room for fellow top teams such as Croatia, despite missing some offensive power in Petar Muslim and Paulo Obradovic, Italy and Greece will come in. Especially a lot can be expected from Italy and Greece. Two teams who have showed steady progression over the course of the recent major international tournaments and will come in fully confident after recent nice results, which for Italy meant winning the 4-nation Volvo Cup in Hungary remaining unbeaten and for Greece dating back to their heroic bronze medal win and Olympic qualification from Kazan 2015. After 3 days of common training with Serbia, the Greek just fell short 12-11 in the concluding unofficial friendly match in Athens this week. All signs that the offensively highly skilled side has the potential of making it at least to the semifinals. For Italy, the stronghold is their defence, as it has been for years already. Despite the return of veteran Christian Presciutti and adding of recently naturalised French-born Michaël Bodegas, the organisation in defence is strong and solid. It held both Hungary (4-5 win) and Spain (14-4) win to just scoring 4 goals during the recent Volvo Cup. Any outsiders? Yes, Spain and Montenegro should be considered, despite being drawn in the same group (A). Both teams have well-known qualities and the potential to upset any title favourite. Montenegro will have to miss centre-forward Filip Klikovac who is ruled out due to a should injury. On the contrary fellow centre-forward Sasa Misic is set to return to major competition for Montenegro after missing out on the action at the 2015 World Championships in Kazan. Head coach Vladimir Gojkovic did not called up up-and-coming defender Uros Cuckovic but instead decided to go in that position with the experience of Antonio Petrovic and Predrag Jokic, who is in the midst of his second season playing for Waspo 98 Hannover in Germany. Veteran goalie Zdravko Radic, like in Kazan last summer, will be absent in Belgrade. Starting goalkeeper Milos Scepanovic will have promising youngster Dejan Lazovic as back-up. Montenegro made no secret of their intention coming into Belgrade 2016: get to the semifinals and obtain the 1 available berth for the 2016 Olympic Games. Once more without a left-handed player in their squad. Both Aleksa Ukropina and even more Luka Sekulic were cut from the roster in the final phase by Gojkovic. Spain meanwhile will be eager to return to major international competition following the team's absence at the 2015 World Championships. Compared to Budapest 2014, where Spain finished 7th, goalkeeper Daniel Lopez has returned but head coach Gabriel Hernandez chose not to call veteran left-hander Xavi Garcia and instead will count on the offensive drift of fellow lefties Blai Mallarach (Olympiacos) and Gonzalo Echenique (Primorje). And with proven scorer Albert Español, tournament top scorer in Budapest with 24 goals, present on the left side, and veteran Guillermo Molina in good form so far this club season for his employer Brescia, Spain's offence will be one to count on, especially on the perimeter. The teams meeting on day 3 of the championships will already be an important match-up knowing the ambitions. Who qualifies for the 2016 Olympics? The highest ranked team except the already qualified sides of Serbia (World League winners), Croatia and Greece (World Championships 2nd and 3rd ranked). If this happens to be the top 3 of the Belgrade 2016 then the number 4 squad will take the only available spot for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. Who qualifies for the Olympic Qualification Tournament? Often asked, but not fully certain, yet. What is sure is that at this point 6 berths for the Olympic Qualification Tournament in Trieste will be available in Belgrade. But that includes tournament hosts Italy who still have the possibility to qualify for the Olympics directly. Why 6 spots available? Europe has the right for 5 places at this tournament (including hosts Italy). There will for sure be a vacancy from the continent of Oceania, due to no more teams available. According to FINA By Law 22.214.171.124.4 the host continent (Europe) will first be given the opportunity to take this additional spot. It basically means at this point the 6 best-ranked sides except for Serbia, Croatia, Greece and the next highest-ranked squad (who qualifies for Rio 2016) will be able to go to the Olympic Qualification Tournament in Trieste (April 3-10) where another 4 berths for the Olympics are up for grabs. To check out the championships full schedule, click here. Who to watch? Sandro Sukno (CRO) Pure talent. Displayed his shooting arsenal once more at the 2015 World Championships scoring a joint team-high 11 goals. And with two dangerous outside shooters out due to injury in Petar Muslim and Paulo Obradovic (highest goal-scorers for Croatia in Kazan), even more of the offensive load will come on the shoulders of Sandro Sukno. Photo: Johan Opperman. Gabor Kis (HUN) 33 year old but returning to the national team for major competition following an injury-plagued phase which had forced him to retire from the national team after missing the 2013 world championships, and 2014 Europeans at home in Budapest. Now after surgery and rest is back in action and slowely but surely reaching his form. A big addition to the centre-forward spot for Hungary who struggled at that position in major competition the last years. Kis, when healthy, can still be regarded among the game's top centre-forwards and will surely provide more 'depth' to Hungary's offensive game. Photo: Sandor Stuber / vlv.hu. Nikola Janovic (MNE) Another veteran but still going strong. Proved his value at the 2014 European championships in Budapest where he guided Montenegro to a very close semifinal defeat vs. Serbia. The two-time European champion (2001, 2008) and 2005 world champion is gearing up for another shot at the 2016 Olympics where Montenegro still needs to qualify for. Has a deadly shot off a free throw but also makes his fair share of minutes at the centre-forward position. Photo: Marcel ter Bals. Gonzalo Echenique (ESP) The new kid on the block for Spain, but a welcome one. The Argentina-born recently finished his naturalisation to obtain Spanish citizenship and has had an instant impact to the Spanish team, especially on offence. The left-hander, who this season plays in Croatia for Primorje, is known for having a dangerous outside shot and will have to form a tandem with fellow lefty Blai Mallarach on the right side for Spain. After successful play in Spain, most recently for Barceloneta, and now in Croatia with Primorje, club-environment will know Echenique, but now he gets the chance to showcase his talents on the premier international stage. Photo: Sandor Stuber / vlv.hu. Cosmin Radu (ROU) Captain and go-to-guy for Romania. Still regarded one of the top centre-forwards in the world, Radu has proven not only to be extremely dangerous at his position in set plays, but also comes through in man-up plays benefiting from his left-hander while proving a great addition to the Romanian squad while with an extra man. Radu, team-mate of Echenique at Primorje this season, is a nightmare for opposition's centre-backs and after an injury earlier this season, is set to lead Romania to the Olympic qualification tournament all in persuit of another trip to the Olympics, following Romania's historic participance at London 2012. Photo: Marcel ter Bals. Matteo Aicardi (GRE) An exponent of the new generation centre-forwards, Matteo Aicardi is more and more coming through as one of the premier scorers on the talented Italian team. Aicardi can keep a defender busy fighting for his position all game long, but is also capable of leading a counter-attack while on the other end being part of the well-known strong Italian defence. The strong yet mobile Aicardi therefore is extremely difficult for a more classic centre-back who usually will give him a fair share of battling for the position but loses it once Aicardi decides to move, either at his position or in transition. Photo: Johan Opperman. Ioannis Fountoulis / Angelos Vlachopoulos (GRE) The most profound shooter of the Greek team. Well-known, yet very hard to stop. Most recently Fountoulis fired away for 6 goals against world champions Serbia in a 12-11 friendly match loss this week in Athens. Fountoulis scored 16 goals at the 2014 European championships in Budapest where Greece finished 6th, while going for 14 last summer in Kazan at the World championships including being named MVP of the bronze medal game where Greece edged Italy for a berth at Rio 2016. Photo: Johan Opperman. Angelos Vlachopoulos is Greece's next best thing. The number 2 position (right side) for Greece became a vocal point for Vlachopoulos in the 2nd week of the World Championships in Kazan where he stepped up leading his team in the lost semifinal vs. Croatia and bronze medal match against Italy. Playing next to right winger Emannouil Mylonakis, who has his threat with the right hand from the number 1 position, Vlachopoulos' scoring in Kazan provided even more depth for the Greek offence as opponents suddenly saw real threats coming from either Fountoulis on the left wing, or Vlachopoulos draining shot after shoting from the opposite side of the pool. It will be interesting so whether Vlachopoulos proves capable of continueing his sensational showing in the second week in Kazan at the 2016 Europeans in Belgrade. Dusko Pijetlovic (SRB) Just this week was named 2015 European Player of the Year by European Aquatics Federation LEN. Objectively looking a well-deserved title for the most successful individual of that year. Pijetlovic led Serbia in scoring at the 2015 World championships where they dominated competition powering their way to the gold medal while highlighting two aspects of his offensive game. Pijetlovic has the technique and strenghth to make lift hard of any defender, but does not stop there. At Serbia's proven-strong extra man Pijetlovic more and more was on the end of playing systems getting his goals from the 'posts'. An understimated feature of the centre-forward though still is his shot from around 5 metres which gives him the opportunity to go for the free throw once the shot clock expires knowing he's capable of firing away. And to become top scorer of a gold-medal winning squad with a shooting percentage of 64,7% not only says some of the Serbian team, but even more on Pijetlovic who knows his plays and strengths. Photo: Marcel ter Bals. ROSTERS Men's participants rosters Serbia: Gojko Pijetlovic, Branislav Mitrovic (goalkeepers), Dusan Mandic, Zivko Gocic, Sava Randjelovic, Milos Cuk, Dusko Pijetlovic, Slobodan Nikic, Milan Aleksic, Nikola Jaksic, Filip Filipovic, Andrija Prlainovic, Stefan Mitrovic. Greece: Konstantinos Flegkas, Stefanos Galanopoulos (goalkeepers), Christos Afroudakis, Ioannis Fountoulis, Angelos Vlahopoulos, Emannouil Mylonakis, Konstantinos Mourikis, Christodoulos Kolomvos, Georgios Dervisis, Konstantinos Genidounias, Evangelos Delakas, Kyriakos Pontikeas, Alexandros Gounas. Spain: Daniel Lopez, Iñaki Aguilar (goalkeepers), Marc Minguell, Marc Roca, Roger Tahull, Albert Español, Balazs Sziranyi, Alberto Munarriz, Francisco Fernandez, Blai Mallarach, Gonzalo Echenique, Guillermo Molina, Gonzalo Lopez-Escribano. Italy: Marco Del Lungo, Stefano Tempesti (goalkeepers), Christian Presciutti, Fabio Baraldi, Valentino Gallo, Matteo Aicardi, Michael Bodegas, Francesco Di Fulvio, Massimo Giacoppo, Alex Giorgetti, Pietro Figlioli, Niccolò Gitto, Stefano Luongo. Croatia: Josip Pavić, Marko Bijač (goalkeepers), Damir Burić, Andro Bušlje, Marko Macan, Luka Lončar, Boris Pavlović, Maro Joković, Antonio Petković, Anđelo Šetka, Sandro Sukno, Luka Bukić, Ante Vukičević. Montenegro: Dejan Lazovic, Milos Scepanovic (goalkeepers), Drasko Brguljan, Vjekoslav Paskovic, Darko Brguljan, Aleksandar Radovic, Mladjan Janovic, Nikola Janovic, Aleksandar Ivovic, Sasa Misic, Predrag Jokic, Antonio Petrovic, Nikola Vukcevic. Hungary: David Bisztritsanyi, Viktor Nagy (goalkeepers), Bence Batori, Adam Decker, Balazs Erdelyi, Miklos Gor-Nagy, Balazs Harai, Norbert Hosnyanszky, Gabor Kis, Krisztian Manhercz, Daniel Varga, Denes Varga, Marton Vamos. Romania: Dragos Stoenescu, Marius Tic (goalkeepers), Cosmin Radu, Tiberiu Negrean, Mihnea Chioveanu, Mihnea Gheorghe, Alex Popoviciu, Roland Szabo, Andrei Buşilă, Dimitri Goanţă, Alexandru Ghiban, Daniel Teohari, Nicolae Oanta. France: Remi Garsau, Jonathan Moriame (goalkeepers), Romain Blary, Alexandre Camarasa, Ugo Crousillat, Michael Izdinski, Enzo Khasz, Igor Kovacevic, Manuel Laversanne, Mehdi Marzouki, Remi Saudadier, Thibaut Simon, Petar Tomasevic. Netherlands: Ruben Hoepelman, Eelco Wagenaar (goalkeepers), Roeland Spijker, Joep van den Bersselaar, Ruud van der Horst, Lars Gottemaker, Luuk Gielen, Jesse Koopman, Lars Reuten, Thomas Lucas, Robin Lindhout, Yoran Frauenfelder, Jorn Winkelhorst. Slovakia: Lukas Kozmer, Martin Famera, Juraj Zatovic, Jozef Hrosik, Lukas Duric, Samuel Balaz, Lukas Seman, Maros Tkac, Tomas Bielik, Kristian Polovic, Martin Kolarik, Tomas Bruder, Michal Gogola. Malta: Alan Borg Cole, Niki Lanzon, Jerome Gabarretta, Nicholas Bugelli, Mark Meli, Matthew Zammit, Stevie Camilleri, Jordan Camilleri, John Brownrigg, Aurelien Cousin, Ben Plumpton,Dino Zammit, Nicky Grixti. Georgia: Nikoloz Shubladze, Beka Kavtaradze, Damir Crepulia, Marko Elez, Andria Bitadze, Marko Jelaca, Giorgi Khvedeliani, Mixeil Baghaturia, Zurab Rurua, Konstantine Gegelashvili, Khvicha Jakhaia, Revaz Imnaishvili, Ivan Struichi. Russia: To be announced January 9. Turkey: Atilla Sezer, Mahir Can Ağkurt, Srdan Aksentijevic, Oytun Okman, Arslan Sutalo, Osman Selim Gülenç, Cemil Bahadır Özbakış, Nadir Sönmez, Ali Can Yılmaz, Mihajlo Korolija, Halil Beşkardeşler, Alican Çağatay, Deniz Şen. Germany: Moritz Schenkel, Roger Kong (goalkeeperS), Mateo Cuk, Maurice Jüngling, Tobias Preuss, Marin Restovic, Marko Stamm, Dennis Eidner, Julian Real, Paul Schüler, Heiko Nossek, Timo van der Bosch, Erik Bukowski. Facts & figures, by LEN … HISTORY: The European Water Polo Championships celebrated their première in 1926. The first event was held in Budapest. Until today 31 editions in the men’s event were carried out from 1926 until 2014. The first event in the women’s competition took place in 1985. The last edition took place in Budapest/Hungary in 2014. … PARTICIPANTS: 16 male and 12 female teams will fight to claim a spot at the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro (August 5-21) as the new European champions will qualify directly for the Games. With a total of 28 teams from 17 LEN Member Federations, the event in Serbia’s capital will be the biggest European Water Polo Championships ever staged in Europe, surpassing the previous record participation of 16 male and nine female teams in Bonn/Germany in 1989. The new European champions will be crowned after exactly 100 matches. … HOSTS: For the second time after 2006 Belgrade will stage the Water Polo Europeans. In the current edition alongside the Danube and Sava Rivers, however, the hosts choose to challenge themselves. Ten years ago the championship matches were played at the legendary swimming pools of Tasmajdan (men) and Banjica (women). This time games will be contested in a temporary pool installed at the Kombank Arena. … LOCATION: The arena has a maximum crowd capacity of up to 25,000 spectators and has already been the venue of numerous European Championships, with the men’s 2005 European Basketball Championships being the first sport event held here. After some alterations, the Kombank Arena will seat approximately 11,000 spectators during the European Water Polo Championships (since one part of the field of play is used for the warm-up pool). A “sold out” session will mean that the venue will witness the largest number of spectators ever seen at a water polo match at the Europeans. The advance ticket-sale has already started on December 1. … POOL: By the way, to date games at the European Water Polo Championships were played only once in a temporary pool: it happened in 1995, when the men’s tournament was staged at the legendary Ernst Happel Stadium in Vienna and Italy clinched the gold medal (the women’s final round was also played here with Italy winning gold there – so far the only occasion when the two titles went to the same country). ... NEWCOMER: The women’s team of Turkey has not yet competed in a European Championship, they qualified for the first time. Croatia’s women’s team also qualified for the first time for the 2016 Europeans in Belgrade; as hosts of the 2010 edition in Zagreb they were automatically qualified. In the men’s tournament Malta will celebrate its premiere on the European water polo stage (they played at the Olympics in Berlin 1936). Even though the national team already had played three European Championships in former years – with different competition modus then: In Split in 1981 Malta secured a 10th-place finish in Group B. Four years later in Sofia they finished in eighth position in Group B. Malta earned a fourth place-result in Group C in Strasbourg in 1987. At that time, these groups played at the same venue as Group A. ... COMPETITION MODUS: In the round of the last 16, the wheat will be separated from the chaff in the men’s water polo event as the first placed teams will meet the fourth-placed sides, according to the draw, in the crossover matches. Likewise, the runners-up will face the third-placed sides. The respective winners will make it to the quarter-finals while the defeated teams will fight for the ranks ninth to 16th in knockout rounds. In the women’s tournament the teams ranked 1-4 of both preliminary round groups will qualify for the quarters and will then determine the semi-final berths. The two teams on fifth position after the preliminary rounds will play for ranks 9-10. The sixth-placed teams will determine the ranks 11-12. ... WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP TICKETS: At the European Championships in Belgrade the teams will not only be fighting for a ticket in the Olympic qualifying tournament and to the Olympic Games in Rio. Their participation in the next World Championships in Budapest (July 15-30, 2017) is at stake, too. The three best teams in the men’s and women’s tournament in Belgrade qualify for the Worlds in Hungary’s capital. As host of the World Championships, Hungary has already secured its berth in both the men’s and women’s tournament.