(5-2, 3-4, 4-2, 2-4)
The Malta U-17 national team’s last act in the group stages of the European Championships turned out to be an honourable performance never mind a defeat at the hands of a clearly higher-ranked Russia, yesterday.
The 14-12 scoreline reflected a battling display from a tiny country which has lived up to its billing of a good standing in the ranking list and followed up Monday’s win over Turkey.
At one point in the third session, Karl Izzo’s boys were trailing by four goals, 12-8, and thereafter they kept fighting bravely. Malta conjured an astonishing recovery to restore equilibrium midway through the last quarter but the Russians hit two late goals to break Malta’s hearts.
“I am so proud of these boys. We played one of the best games of water polo at national level,” coach Karl Izzo said.
“The team were tactically perfect and it’s a pity we missed some man-up situations which would have surely made us win this game. All the players gave their best in a high-level collective team efforts.
“Today we showed that Malta can play at a par against the top waterpolo nations. This was another excellent advert for Maltese waterpolo. With heads held high, we look forward to tomorrow’s match against the mighty Serbia.”
An early brace by Jake Muscat was quickly neutralised by a superior Russian side who displayed sharper offensive instincts in the opening part of the game and take a 5-2 lead.
Then, Malta started to play better and in the second session Benji Cachia and Muscat cut deficit to 4-5 before the Russians responded when scoring three times without reply to extend their advantage.
Malta bounced back with a fourth goal by Muscat but the three-goal cushion was soon restored by Askar Iarullin’s effort. Sebastian Busuttil again limited the adverse score as Malta won the second session 4-3 for a half-time deficit of 8-6.
Muscat, Malta’s best player, made it 8-7 with a penalty conversion as goals alternated with Jake Bonavia putting his name on the scorelist for 9-8.
Three consecutive conversions were Russia’s response for a 12-8 reading in their favour with the last session left.
Despite that scoreline, the Maltese had been more than competitive and very much in the contest at that stage and they responded with goals from Muscat, Busuttil and Cachia before Bonavia equalised with a beautiful push-shot.
But any hope of a major upset were ended by late goals from Aleksandr Zhuliabin and Zamir Mirziev that secured the points and second place in the group for the Russians.
Today, Malta will play Serbia in the cross-overs, with the winner booking a place into the quarter-finals.
MALTA: M. Vassallo, J. Farrugia, G. Melillo, M. Carani, B. Cachia 2, L. Falzon, S. Busuttil 2, G. Farrugia, J. Bonavia 2, M. Chircop, J. Muscat 6.
RUSSIA: V. Burov, D. Ivannikov 1, A. Bovan 2, G. Kabakov, E. Fedotov, A. Zhuliabin 3, A. Utaliev, A. Frantcuzov, M. Shulev 3, Z. Mirziev 1, V. Rachitelev 3, A. Iarullin 1, N. Pavlov.
Referees: Zsolt Marjay (Hungary), Irakli Kikalishvili (Georgia).