A Balkan derby will always bring passion, grit and energy to the table and the game between Croatia and Serbia did just that in a packed Spaladium Arena.
Croatia steamrolled their way past Serbia, with the hosts avenging the 26:22 loss in the EHF EURO 2012 semifinal.
As Croatia had 11 of their 14 outfield players scoring, they jumped to the biggest ever win against their rivals, 32:22.
"We played good for 27 minutes and we were in the game. But because of our foolishness and some unnecessary quick moves we practically lost the match," Serbian winger Nemanja Ilic said.
A spine-tingling a capella rendition of the Croatian anthem saw many players hold back their tears, as they were setting about an emotional night in front of a sold-out Spaladium Arena.
The 11,000 rousing fans had to wait roughly three minutes for the first goal, but erupted into cheers after Luka Cindric put the ball past Vladimir Cupara.
However, there was little to no emotion show by the Serbian players in a tense atmosphere, as they managed to keep their opponents in check, with Croatia only opening a 6:3 gap after 10 minutes, thanks to their impressive 77% shot efficiency.
As their fans kept singing and cheering, Lino Cervar’s side continued to lead the game, but a stunning display from left back Nemanja Zelenovic, who scored three goals in the first 24 minutes, helped Serbia cut the gap to one goal, 10:9.
As Serbia had the chance to tie the game for the first time, a pair of turnovers gave Croatia the upper hand. The hosts never looked back, took advantage and had a 4:0 partial to end the half, with Luka Stepancic in particular good form, scoring five times.
"The best thing today was that all of the players were good at their game. It was hard to play because a lot of us didn't play in an atmosphere like this before. It's one big plus for us in the future," Stepancic said.
Duvnjak’s injury scare mars Croatia win
There was no turning back for Serbia, who simply did not have the firepower to compete against the hosts.
Serbia changed the defence in a more aggressive 5-1 defence, but Croatia did not have any trouble to find their way to the goal, as they opened a seven-goal gap, 19:12, after 36 minutes.
As goalkeeper Vladimir Cupara tried to punish Croatia’s feisty tactic of pulling off Mirko Alilovic, he hit the post twice in less than a minute, much to the heartbreak of the Serbian team.
But there were not only smiles for the Croatian side, as star playmaker Domagoj Duvnjak came down with a knee injury with only three and a half minutes to go.
The 32:22 win was Croatia’s biggest one ever against Serbia, by two goals more than the 31:23 one at the 2012 Olympic Games.
"In two days we play against Iceland who played a really good game today. We have to prepare for that one very well. There is no place for the euphoria, we have to be calm and prepare for the next opponent as there is still a lot of steps which we have to climb," Croatia coach Lino Cervar said.
Croatia can earn a main round berth with a win against Iceland on Sunday, while Serbia must not lose against Sweden if they want to stay alive in the competition.