RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Matteo Aicardi is tough to guard in normal situations in water polo. When Italy plays with the man advantage, he becomes even more dangerous.
Same for Filip Filipovic and Serbia, Ioannis Fountoulis and Greece, and the list goes on and on.
The importance of man-up situations, long one of the most critical areas in the Olympics' first team sport, is on full display right now in Rio de Janeiro. Through two days of the men's tournament, there have been three ties and five one-goal games — making every chance to attack with an extra player a very precious commodity.
"Extra man, in this kind of sport, the last few years, this is the most important moment in the match," Aicardi said after he scored four times in Italy's 11-8 victory over France on Monday.
Water polo has three types of fouls: ordinary, exclusion and penalty. The majority of whistles during a typical match are for ordinary infractions, which result in a simple free throw. But intentionally kicking or striking an opponent, disrespecting a referee or using foul language are among a group of actions that can prompt an exclusion, a player being sent off for a maximum of 20 seconds. The player also can return after a goal or change of possession.
"It's important, the 6-on-5, but it's important for defense, because when you lose control on defense it leads to easy goals and easy goals in these close games, you pay at the end," Italy coach Alessandro Campagna said.
Exclusions often lead to momentum swings, either through scoring on offense or coming up with a big stop on the defensive side. Exclusions also can help wear down opponents, since it requires field players and goaltenders to work extra hard to protect the cage while their teammate waits anxiously in the re-entry area in the corner near his country's bench.
"I think extra-man attack and defense makes or breaks games," Australia driver Richie Campbell said. "If you got solid defense in extra man and you're shutting them out, then it puts a lot of mental pressure on them as well as the physical pressure."
Italy and France were tied at 1 before Christian Presciutti and Alessandro Velotto scored consecutive extra-man goals, making it 3-1 with 2:20 left in the first. After Thibaut Simon's penalty shot trimmed Italy's lead to 8-6 in the third, Aicardi helped the silver medalists from London regain control with a goal from in close right after Igor Kovacevic's exclusion had ended.
Aicardi played with a white mask after he suffered a broken nose during Saturday's 9-8 win over Spain.
"It worked," he said. "I faced one punch maybe and one shot in my face, but everything is OK."
Greece and Serbia combined for nine extra-man goals in a 9-9 tie in the first match of the second day. Australia came up empty on a couple of extra-man trips in the fourth period of its 9-9 tie against Hungary. Blai Guell Mallarach's man-up goal with 4:11 left proved to be the difference in Spain's 10-9 victory over the winless United States.
"We've got to start making stops," said Bret Bonanni, who had four goals for the U.S. "We can't let the other team score 10 goals."
Playing in front of an adoring crowd, surprising Brazil got five goals from Josip Vrlic and moved to 2-0 with a runaway 16-8 victory over Japan. It leads Group B with four points, followed by Greece with three.
Next up for the host country is Serbia on Wednesday night.
Croatia, which won gold in London and edged Montenegro 8-7 on Monday night, is tied with Italy for the top spot in Group B. Spain and Montenegro are tied for third with two points apiece.
After five games in the preliminary round, the top four teams in each group advance to the quarterfinals.