Gergely Csurka, FINA Media Committee

Favourites cleared the first important hurdles on their road to Tokyo – Montenegro, Croatia and Russia did it with almost flawless performances in the quarter-finals but Greece was caught in the middle of a real drama against France. A 0-6 rout in the middle of the match almost put them out of the Olympic quest but they managed to come back from 7-10 down and eliminated the French after a penalty shootout. Montenegro ended the Dutch dreams while Croatia dominated the game played with Georgia and Russia also managed to overcome some minor headaches after the Canadians had climbed back to 6-8 and produced a 3-9 run in the remaining time.

Five years ago the quarter-final day was perhaps the most thrilling single competition day in recent FINA history: three matches were decided by a single goal and one in the penalty shootout. Though the favourites prevailed but Hungary, Spain and Italy all went through some really scary moments before they managed to edge out their respective rivals. Here in Rotterdam it was a different story – well, almost. Once more, the semi-finals became an all-European affair as it was expected, and this time three of the favoured sides Montenegro, Croatia and Russia enjoyed more-or-less easy cruises to the semis. The fourth one, Greece almost bowed out though – at one stage they were in a big trouble but survived the scare and won the penalty shootout.

After a bravely fought preliminary round, the Netherlands’ spirited team had to succumb to a much better side. The hosts deserve the credit to force Montenegro into an intense battle and to keep the hopes alive for at least three periods. But in the fourth they ran out of gas and the Montenegrins’ physical superiority, experience and better individual abilities validated what had seemed inevitable before the match already.

Ivovic & Co. were too powerful, they handled the pressure and the Dutch really well - Photos: Marcel tel Bals

Montenegro opened the game with a 5-0 rush, then a lapse in their concentration offered some chance for the hosts which they took and with a 0-3 surge they were back in the game. In the second and third period they kept on coming back, at 7-5 and 8-6 they seemed to have a chance. However, the Montenegrins responded with the utmost professionalism and scored in the crucial moments. They led 10-7 after three periods and added three more in 111 seconds early in the fourth to decide the match – indeed they shut out the hosts in the entire fourth quarter. It means that the Dutch dreams of returning to the Olympics after 2000 were over – in fact, they were much closer five years ago when they lost the quarters to France in a penalty shootout (they beat Spain in the prelims to finish second in the group stage).

As for the penalties, France reached that stage once more – this time it was quite a feat as the Greeks were overwhelming favourites. To put this into perspective: just five weeks ago Greece thrashed the French 12-3 in the quarters of the World League European prelims. With a lot more at stake in this quarter-final, the Greek players seemed to be much more tense and within a matter of minutes they already conceded those three goals in the first period. Here they responded well, jumped to 5-3 up after 2-3, early in the second they led 7-4 but then came a stunning phase when their game crashed completely while the French staged a 6-0 run. A real Greek drama was unfolding – even though they halted their scoreless period after 11:01 minutes but the favourites were trailing 10-12 before the last period. They stepped up, though, while the French seemed to become too nervous from the tremendous opportunity to cause one of the biggest upsets in the history of the Olympic qualifiers and they began to miss their shots in a row. Still, they could hit once more after Greece’s 3-0 run to save the game to a shootout but there the bigger experience prevailed. The Greek goalie Emmanouil Zerdevas – who went through some miserable moments during the match – came up with two saves while the Greek shooters converted all four penalties to advance to the semis. It would have been a Greek tragedy to see the men’s team sink after the women team had failed to qualify for the third time in a row. At the same time, the French can have a consoling thought: the next ‘available’ Games – hopefully – are just three years away and in Paris 2024 they have a guaranteed spot in the Olympic tournament.

Contrasting emotions – the benches at the end of the shootout

After the high tensions a calming contest followed where Croatia successfully overcame the early nervousness against Georgia and decided the match by halftime. Georgia could hold on up until the Croats found their rhythm and calm – once they had it, at the beginning of the second, it was no longer a contest. After 2-2 Croatia produced a 0-5 rush and that buried all hopes of the Georgians. Marko Bijac delivered crucial saves to give the opportunity for his mates to launch a series of counters so they could build a commanding 3-9 lead by halftime. They slowed down for the third – eying a grand semi-final clash against arch-rival Montenegro – and burnt only the necessary amount of energy to net only two in the last two minutes of this quarter. It was affordable as Bijac enjoyed one of those days when he could not even be beaten in a 6 on 4. His saving percentage was 72.7%, an outstanding effort while the team stopped at 15 goals in front. In 24 hours, it’s going to be a different experience as they face Montenegro in the semis – the winner of this extraordinary battle will secure its place at the Olympics.

The tight Croatian defence didn't leave too much free room (and breath) for the Georgians

The other semi will see a clash of Greece and Russia as the latter side also confirmed its favourite status by beating Canada. It was a bit similar to the first game, where a good start wasn’t followed by a similarly convincing performance which gave the opportunity for the underdogs to have an shot on causing an upset. In the second period the Russians built a massive 3-8 lead but then they began to blow some easy chances and three connecting goals fired up the North Americans. Then Russian leftie Ivan Nagaev ‘sold’ his trademark zero-angled shot in the most heated moment at 6-8 and that goal killed the Canadians’ momentum. Soon order was restored and Russia sailed away with a big win as they netted five more in the last period.

A rare scene: the ball passes Russian goalie Victor Ivanov's arm – the Russians' shots landed in the Canadian net almost twice more

Fixtures for Saturday

Semi-finals

18.00 Montenegro v Croatia

20.00 Greece v Russia

For places 5-8th

14.00 Netherlands v Georgia

16.00 France v Canada

The top three ranked sides qualify for the Olympic Games.

The draw for the Olympic tournaments - both men and women - will be held here in Rotterdam on Sunday at 18.30 CET.