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Croatia to play Italy in Olympic water polo final

Friday - 8/10/2012, 6:38pm  ET

By RYAN LUCAS
Associated Press

LONDON (AP) - First a win over three-time defending Olympic champion Hungary, and now another over gold-medal favorite Serbia.

Not a bad few days for the Italian men's water polo team.

Led by Valentino Gallo's three goals, Italy upset Serbia 9-7 on Friday to advance to the Olympic final against undefeated Croatia, which beat Montenegro 7-5 in the other semifinal.

The 2011 world champion Italians scored four unanswered goals _ two of them on deflections _ over a five-minute stretch in the first half of a bruising contest to take a 5-2 lead and control of the match.

Serbia, led by 2010 world player of the year Vanja Udovicic and 2011 winner Filip Filipiovic, rallied to get to 6-5, but Italy goalkeeper Stefano Tempesti made a string of saves _ and got some help from the posts _ to hold the Serbs off.

"We are a young team. We are very crazy and we work a lot and we have a fantastic coach and now we play for the final," Italy defender Maurizio Felguo said. "We work a lot this year and we hope to do a match like this and congratulations to Serbia but today we are very, very organized and we played very well."

Friday's second semifinal was a rematch of the 2011 world championship final in Shanghai, China, which Italy won 8-7. The Italians have 11 players back from that squad, and while the country was expected to be a contender coming into London, it was considered to be a notch below the favored Serbs.

"Everybody, we are the same level as in Shanghai," Italy coach Alessandro Campagna said. "I told you that each match we would play better and better, and this is what has happened. Our physical condition is going up and I think that we deserved to win this game very much. Very strong physically, but we play very clever tactically."

For Serbia, which has won nearly every major tournament since settling for bronze at the 2008 Beijing Games, the loss comes as a huge shock, and means the country will have to wait for its first Olympic water polo gold as an independent country.

"If I may be honest, we didn't have luck today. In the first quarter they scored on us two sudden goals from blocked shots, and from that position it's hard to catch (up)," Serbia coach Dejan Udovicic said. "Some shots that we usually score, we didn't score today. This is the difference."

In Sunday's final, Italy will be looking to win its fourth Olympic gold in men's water polo and the first since 1992.

Croatia advanced after getting two goals from Sandro Sukno and a sparkling performance from goalkeeper Josip Pavic against Montenegro.

Aleksandar Ivovic scored first for Montenegro, but it was all Croatia after that as they slotted home the next five goals to take a 5-1 lead at the half.

"Tough game," Niksa Dobud of Croatia said with a grin as he licked blood off his right pinkie finger. "I've never felt so tired like now, but it's nothing because we are in the final. We play again great defense, we were aggressive. Our offense was not so good, but when you are good in the back, you are so calm in the attack."

With Friday's win, Croatia avenged its quarterfinal loss to Montenegro four years ago in Beijing and earned a shot at its first Olympic water polo title, and first medal in the event since silver at the 1996 Atlanta Games.

Since a disappointing ninth-place finish at the 2012 European championship, Croatia has been on a roll, winning the FINA World League Finals last month and rolling through the competition so far in London undefeated.

"Very good performance, all the tournament, from the first game to this game," Croatia coach Ratko Radic said.

The team's defense, anchored by Pavic in goal, has been stellar, conceding only 36 goals in seven games. Croatia held the U.S. to only two goals in their quarterfinal matchup, and it was stingy again against a talented Montenegro team in the semifinals.

"It's much, much easier to be in the Croatian goal when your teammates play defense like this because they play extremely good, very, very well, fantastic, and that's the key of our success," said Pavic, who has a tournament-leading save percentage of 71 percent.

Montenegro, which finished fourth at the 2008 Games, will play for bronze.

"We today didn't play well, and Croatia played very well. Congratulations to them because today they were the better team," Montenegro captain Nikola Janovic said. "This was one of the difficult matches in this tournament. We know they are very, good team, they are strong, they are tall, and we today, in the end, couldn't do anything."

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