On Day Four of FINA World Water Polo Championships, Croatia Dominates USA

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USA's Luca Cupido and Croatia's Josip Vrlic battle Wednesday for position. Photo Courtesy: Tsutomu Kishimoto/FINA

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Behind a blistering attack that saw them connect on more than 50% of their shots—with four players recording hat tricks—defending champion Croatia continued its impressive run at FINA Worlds, beating an over-matched USA men’s squad 17-7 on Day Four of the 18th FINA World Water Polo Championships.

fina-gwangju-jul19Hrvoje Benic, Maro Jokovic, Josip Vrlic and Ante Vukicevic all tallied three goals apiece. After scoring six times in an opening day win over Australia, Vukicevic now has nine goals in two matches. Goalie Marko Bijac—who was not seriously tested by the Americans—recorded 11 saves before he was rested for the fourth quarter. His replacement, Ivan Marcelic, stopped all five shots that he faced as the Croatians finished strong, scoring four times in the final eight minutes of the match while holding their opponent to a single tally.

For the second straight match the Croatian defense held its opponent to less than 20% success on shooting attempts. The Americans connected on just seven of 37 shots; leading their parade of futility was Hannes Daube, who scored on only one of his 10 attempts.

Match over before it began?

There’s little to compare between the two squads. Croatia is the defending world champions who have looked like world beaters in the early days of the tournament. The U.S. could draw many positives from a 16-7 opening day win against Kazakhstan, but Head Coach Dejan Udovicic had to know that he had no answer for the 6-6 Vrlic, the Croatians massive hole set.

The U.S. roster is thin on size; Ben Hallock, at 6-6, 250, and Jesse Smith—listed at 6-4, 240—potentially have the size to push back on the 6-6 veteran of multiple world championships. But Hallock is the American’s primary offensive threat at two meters. Smith, at 36 years old, is not the brute force he once was.

Croatia head coach Ivica Tucak knew the center of the U.S. defense was weak, so his game plan attacked it. In the match’s opening minutes, Vrlic shook off Smith and easily beat goalie Alex Wolf from two meters to put the Croatians ahead for good. This began an offensive onslaught against Wolf and the American defense. Captain Andro Buslje, Vukicevic and Benic all scored in succession, while Hallock picked up his second ejection just before the end of the first period.

12-09-2018: Waterpolo: Berlin FINA Men’s Water Polo World Cups 2018

Croatia’s Ivica Tucak (lower left) had his players well-prepared for Team USA. Photo Courtesy: Sportphoto.shop

A goal by Johnny Hooper temporarily stemmed America’s defensive bleeding, but Vrlic opened the scoring for his team in period two, in a play that exposed the talent gulf between the two teams. With Smith again on his back, Vrlic reached for a perfectly placed pass and almost casually spun and rifled a backhand shot past a surprised Wolf to make it 5-1. Chancellor Ramirez scored the first of his two goals to make it appear the Americans were competitive, but 20 seconds later Jokovic absolutely blistered a six meter shot to restore the Croatian’s four-goal advantage.

After both teams exchanged goals to make it 8-4, Bencic put a flourish on dismal first half for Wolf and the Americans, rifling a shot from more than eight meters to beat the U.S. goalie at the buzzer. For the half, Alex Bowen—who last June scored five times in giving his team just the second win in 23 attempts against Croatia—had zero goals on zero shots. Tucak wisely eliminated the Americans’ best outside shooter, whose lone goal came early in the final period with his team already down by seven goals.

Hallock got on the board late in the third with a nifty power move in front of the Croatia cage; one might speculate that playing more than 17 minutes might have allowed Hallock greater impact on the match. However, it was clearly evident that whomever Udovicic had on hand could not match his opponents’ depth; even when Tucak cleared his bench late in the fourth period—and with many of the U.S. starters still in the pool—the Croatians blanked their opponent for the final six minutes of the match while scoring three times.

Two teams going in different directions

With one more match in Group A play—against hapless Kazakhstan, which lost 17-8 to Australia—Croatia will cruise into cross-over play as the top team in the bracket, and will therefore get a day of rest before resuming play in the quarterfinals. Based on their dismantling of both Australia and America in successive matches, Tucak has his charges primed for another finals run, depending upon where mighty Serbia finishes.

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Would you REALLY want to face this guy? Photo Courtesy: Total Waterpolo

Udovicic and his youthful squad are in a familiar place, facing regional rival Australia for second in the bracket—and a considerably easier path to the quarterfinals. Perhaps Bowen, Daube and Hallock will regain their collective scoring touches, and Smith will discover a fountain of youth in the waters of the temporary pool at Nambu University. If not, it will be more disappointment for followers of U.S. men’s polo.

In case you don’t know, the Aussies’ attack features hole set Joe Kayes, who is listed at 6-5 and 275—yet another big challenge for the U.S.