By Marton Dunai
BUDAPEST (Reuters) – Defending water polo world champions Serbia have steamrolled the opposition on the way to Thursday’s semi-final against Croatia, but while they are on a three-match win streak against their arch rivals they know they can take nothing for granted.
The Serbs beat Croatia in the Rio Olympics final last year as well as the 2015 world championship final in Kazan. They also beat them at the 2016 European championship, where the Serbs won gold.
Serbia powered through the group phase in Budapest and thrashed a young Australian side 15-5 to reach the semis, even though they were not at their best early on.
“We had three days of rest (so) we started a little bit bad,” Serbian goalkeeper Branislav Mitrovic said after the quarter-final.
“We had to get back to the rhythm, but then everything was in place again. So far, we haven’t played against a really strong opponent.”
Serbia’s other goalie, Gojko Pijetlovic, emphasized the role of their suffocating defense.
“We had a really good, solid defense, so I hope we will continue like this,” he said. “The hardest match so far in the tournament is ahead of us now, we have to prepare mentally and tactically.”
Croatia defeated a strong Italian side 11-9 to advance and center Luka Loncar said they would try to maintain that momentum to beat the Serbs.
“We have come to the semi-finals where we might repeat our (quarter-finals) effort and try to win against the biggest opponent in the world championship,” he said.
Former powerhouse Hungary failed to get on the podium in Rio or Kazan but after a dominant 14-5 win over Russia they now play Greece with a place in the final at stake.
A raucous home crowd at Budapest’s scenic Margaret Island will support the team, which is undergoing a revamp after a golden era in which it won three straight Olympic titles.
“The Greeks are always trying to slow down the opponent, making the offence impotent,” Hungary’s veteran player Denes Varga said. “We know them well, I hope we can dictate the same kind of pace in the next game (so) we can make it to the final.”
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)