Rio 2016 Water Polo Men’s Round 1 Preview
There are 9 teams who can realistically come home victorious from Rio and that will make for a very exciting tournament indeed. As always, the preliminary round will throw out more than a few surprises and the depth of talent throughout all of the teams will really highlight some brilliantly hard fought battles and close games in 2016. The strong favourites are Serbia with victories in every major international tournament since 2013. The Olympics however isn’t always kind to the favourites and we’re looking forward to seeing who will ‘do a USA’ as absolute underdogs from Beijing 2008 to claim the silver or a Serbia when in-fighting led to players with a broken arm and an injured ankle in that same year. Croatia enjoys the addition of ex-Spanish national Xavi Garcia while Hungary has re-built under the experience of Tibor Benedek. Greece has had good form of recent years while Italy has a strong mix of experience and youth along with Spain and strong discipline from ex-national player and head coach Gabriel Hernandez while Australia’s confident influence of Elvis Fatovic and strong team unit could well put them on the dais to create History. USA is the youngest team under ex Serbian head coach Dejan Udovicic and boasts 5-time veteran Tony Azevado while host nation Brazil will be no easy beat with ex Spanish superstar Felipe Perrone leading a team who will most certainly rise to the occasion under the most successful coach in history; Ratko Rudic.
Who will win? Too tough to call. Serbia do look unbeatable but they enter this tournament with the pressure of a nation on their shoulders. Hungary has admitted Serbia’s superiority and hasn’t promised a Gold but me thinks this is to enter the water without expectation or pressure. Croatia will be very very hard to beat with Gold medal experience from London 2012 however they did falter recently at the European Championships and some issues around player behaviour seems to have arisen internally. Greece – they’ve been hitting consistent form and I wouldn’t be surprised if they weren’t playing off for a medal come August 21st. Spain, Italy and USA; the bulk of their teams are new to the Olympics and will likely enjoy the ride and certainly create some brilliant performances but it will take a super-effort to thwart the likes of Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro and depending on confidence: Hungary. Australia – the dark horse or the Great White [Shark] Hope. Luck will fall their way finally and it will take just one crucial victory for them to go all the way; consistently strong performances against the best teams means it won’t be a surprise to see them truly succeed. Brazil – certainly have the ability to ruin the Olympic dreams of more qualified teams but I don’t think they’ll have the legs to withstand the consistency required to finish in the medals. France and Japan will provide some entertaining water polo but will finish down the ladder. Montenegro – Very possible to win Gold. Their form in Belgrade v Serbia in front of 16000+ Serbian spectators was worthy of victory but the might of the home crowd made it very tough. Rio 2016 might finally deliver this small but very proud nation’s hope.
Serbia v Hungary – Serbia by 2.
The battle of two very proud and successful titans in Hungary and Serbia will come to a head in the first game for Group A in the water polo tournament in Rio.
Hungary are no strangers to success having won Olympic Gold Medals in 2000, 2004 and 2008 with countless other victories in that time lead by a dream team of stars such as Tamas Kasas, Gergely Kiss, Tibor Benedek and Peter Biros. The Varga Brothers were both in the victorious 2008 team (who have interestingly swapped roles with Daniel recently taking over the captaincy from Denes) along with Norbert Hosnyanszky (watch out for his unbelievable back-hands from anywhere in the field).
Serbia however are the strong favourites for gold in Rio winning golds in every major international tournament since 2013. The team boasts an absolute all-star line-up however watch out for left-hander Filip Filopovic (multiple world player of the year) and sharp shooter Andrija Prlainovic together with the skilful and strong centre forward Slobodan Nikic.
I’m picking Serbia for the win however the tournament is long and entering the Olympics as favourites hasn’t necessarily worked in their favour in the past (they were strong favourites in London 2012 and arguably 2008). Hungary will look to play well as a team and win or lose will want to play with confidence to ensure they are into the quarter finals stage at the end of the prelims.
Greece v Japan (Greece win by 5)
Having won the bronze medal against Italy in a penalty shoot-out in Kazan 2015 and picking up the bronze in this year’s World League, Greece will come into this tournament with good confidence and high expectations. They should have no problem looking after the unorthodox style of driving and hard press of Japan who are a lighter but fast team. Japan will throw absolutely everything at every game however and can’t be underestimated for a surprise somewhere in this tournament. Cristos Afrodakis lines up for his fourth Olympics while Fontoulis and Mourakis will be the ones to watch.
Brazil v Australia (Australia win by 2)
An absolutely crucial match for both of these teams who will want to ensure their entry to the final is half way complete after this first round match. Brazil will target Japan and Australia as their entry to the next round and the coaching will be one of the most interesting aspects of this opener. Ratko Rudic has won Gold medals with multiple national teams (Yugolsavia, Italy, Croatia) and now coaches the proud host nation. Felipe Perrone, the recent MVP from the EuroLeague Final 6 with champions Jug Dubrovnik will lead this side as he return to Brazil after a long and successful career with Spain. Slobodan Soro (formerly Serbia) will cause problems in goals for the Aussies while Josip Vrlic will test the Aussie’s strong defence in centre-forward. Also watch Adrian Delgado’s shot on the right-hand wing (he played professionally with Felipe in Barceloneta, Spain for a number of years before switching to the Hungarian league).
The Aussies are coached by 2012 Croatian Assistant coach (to Ratko Rudic) Elvis Fatovic. He has shown a wonderful ability to get the Aussies in peak form for the big tournaments. Whilst the Sharks have gone painstakingly close on so many occasions (losing to Greece in penalty shoot-outs in Kazan 2015 Quarter Finals whilst drawing with Hungary and giving Serbia the closest run for their money), his presence has made a huge difference to the confidence of the Aussies. Aaron Younger is in fine form (Media All Star Team – Kazan 2015) after a season back in Hungary after a short stint in Croatia along with the toughness of Aidan Roach and Joel Swift in the Centre. Big Joe Kayes (ex NZ) will don the Green and Gold for the first time after FINA released him to play after an unfortunate delay and Richie Campbell and Rhys Howden will have their shoulders at full strength and accuracy. Players player Johnno Coterill will be rock solid in his second appearance. The one to really watch in goals however will be James Stanton-French. Back for his third Olympics and in the best shape of his career enjoy watching how effortlessly he pulls down shots anywhere near his 210cm ‘wingspan’.
Brazil upset the Aussies in the World League Super Final in 2015 and went on to stun USA with a penalty shoot-out victory to claim their first ever World League bronze medal. Australia made amends with victory against Brazil in their last encounter this year 13-9 however with the home-crowd support this will be a very tough game.
USA v Croatia (Croatia win by 2)
The Croatians are the clear favourites although the youngest team in the tournament, USA will certainly put up a strong fight after impressive results at home against Serbia recently (albeit ‘friendly’) and with a very strong coach in Dejan Udovicic (Ex SRB London 2012). Tony Azevado returns for his fifth Olympic appearance for the US whilst Croatia boasts a team of Olympic Gold medallists including Sukno, Buric, Jokovic, Pavic and Buslje. The strength and experience of Croatia should shine in this first round game.
Of interest is Xavi Garcia’s defection to Croatia from Spain. Spanish team coach Gabi Hernandez decided not to select Xavi who has been playing professionally in Croatia for a number of years now. Xavi decided to apply to FINA for a transfer given his new citizenship and will be lining up for his fourth Olympics and first representing Croatia. Xavi’s recent form with EuroLeague champions Jug Dubrovnik together with the other left-hander Jokovic will make for a very interesting Rio 2016.
France v Montenegro (Montenegro win by 4)
France’s qualification to Rio was marred in controversy with claims they dropped a game to Canada 13-4 in the qualification tournament to pave the way for an easier path to the semi-finals where they beat the Netherlands 4-3 on penalties while Canada lost 8-7 to the more difficult opponents Spain. FINA investigated the complaints however without sanction.
Although France has a number of solid players, they won’t be a match for the strength of Montenegro who won the silver medal at last year’s European Championships (to Serbia who enjoyed a record 18,000+ supporters). Look out for Aleksander (‘Leka’) Ivovic, team veteran and strong as an ox in centre-back Predrag Jokic together with Mladan Janovic and Antonio Petrovic.
Spain v Italy (Draw > Italy win +1)
This will be an exciting match-up with two young teams with a lot to prove. The Italians are a very new team since claiming silver in London 2012 and the Spanish have had a tough ride after missing qualification to the Kazan World Championships in 2015. Spain won against Italy in the recent European Championships for 5th place (8-7). Both teams had very consistent performances in that tournament and this game will come down to the last second again.
Italy boasts successful coach Alessandro Campagna (Olympic Gold Medallist) and players from the London 2012 Silver medalists Pietro Figlioli (4th Olympic Appearance, ex AUS 2004, 2008), Stefano Tempesti in goals (5th appearance), Matteo Aicardi in centre, Valentino Gallo on the left wing and ex French National Michael Bodegas on debut. Spain will enjoy the experience of Guillermo Molina (4th appearance) along with Marc Minguell, Albert Espanol and Inaki Aguilar in goals and Gabi Hernandez has a very well disciplined team with the fitness regime to wear any opponent down.