Serbia, Montenegro advance to Olympic water polo semifinals
RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) Facing its former coach in a hostile arena, Croatia showed why it's a threat to repeat as Olympic champions.
Marko Bijac made 15 saves, including stops on two first-half penalty shots, and Croatia beat Brazil 10-6 on Tuesday to advance to the semifinals of the men's water polo tournament at the Rio de Janeiro Games.
''I think the key was our concentration,'' Bijac said. ''Through the whole match we didn't let any other factors like crowd or referees or opponent to have influence on us. We really concentrated, especially on defense.''
Maro Jokovic and Javier Gadea Garcia scored three goals apiece for Croatia, which will face Montenegro in the next round. The 2012 gold medalists led 7-3 at the break and held off Brazil in the second half despite Damir Buric's four-minute exclusion after a brief skirmish with Josip Vrlic.
''Now arrive the most important games in the tournament,'' Gadea Garcia said. ''We can take a medal ... and we will see against Montenegro. Will be a very tough game.''
Montenegro outscored Hungary 4-2 on penalty shots for a 13-11 victory. World champion Serbia and Italy also face off Thursday in a repeat of the semifinals from the London Games.
Backed by another raucous, flag-waving crowd, Brazil faltered a bit in the second quarter and never recovered in its first Olympic appearance since 1984. Bernardo Oneto Gomes had three goals, but only three other players scored for the host country.
''It's very hard. It's very difficult,'' Brazil's Felipe Perrone said. ''Croatia is a former Olympic champion. They (played) great defense.''
Playing under Ratko Rudic, who guided Croatia to the title in London, Brazil opened the tournament with three straight wins, including a surprising 6-5 victory against Serbia last Wednesday. But the loss to Croatia was its third in a row.
''If you want to win the game for the medal, you must be mentally very, very strong,'' Rudic said, ''so sometimes we couldn't do the things that we can usually do.''
Brazil and Croatia trained together before the Olympics, and Rudic dismissed the significance of coaching against his former team. He also said he will not coach Brazil beyond the Olympics.
Also Tuesday, Dusan Mandic scored four goals to help Serbia beat Spain 10-7 in its best performance so far in Rio, and Pietro Figlioli had three goals as Italy knocked off Greece for a 9-5 win.
Filip Filipovic and Stefan Mitrovic each scored two goals for Serbia, which has won three in a row since the loss to Brazil put them on the brink of elimination in the preliminary round.
''Sometimes you must touch the bottom to see how to rise,'' Filipovic said, ''and I think that after Brazil, we literally touched the bottom.''
Spain closed to 4-3 on consecutive goals by Guillermo Molina Rios in the second quarter, but Serbia responded with the last three goals of the first half - including one for Milan Aleksic with just 12 seconds left.
It was its first halftime lead of the competition.
''We start great, from the opening of the match,'' Filipovic said. ''So we didn't allow the opponent to score two, three goals, and then (have) to chase our chances.''
Serbia won bronze in each of the last two Olympics and is facing a lot of pressure to bring home the country's first gold medal in perhaps its favorite sport. After struggling with the pressure early on, it looks as if it is growing more comfortable heading into the semifinals.
Montenegro also advanced to the next round after finishing fourth in Beijing and London.
Montenegro had a 9-8 lead when Hungary captain Denes Varga scored on a terrific long-range shot with 1:11 remaining, fading to his left before banking one in off the left goalpost.
''Last shot was really my mistake,'' Hungary goaltender Milos Scepanovic said, ''and I was really focused to make things correct.''
Scepanovic responded with saves on penalty shots by Marton Vamos and Norbert Hosnyanszky, and Vjekoslav Paskovic connected on his penalty try to close out the win, leading to hugs and excited smiles on the Montenegro bench.
''Two saves on Hungary's shooters, it is amazing,'' Montenegro coach Vladimir Gojkovic said, praising his goaltender. ''Some of the best shooters in the world, you know, and he (made the) difference today.''
Jay Cohen can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/jcohenap