By Sarah Young
LONDON (Reuters) - Fired up by defeats of defending champions Hungary and European title-holders Serbia in their last two matches, Italy have high hopes of upsetting favourites Croatia in Sunday's water polo final (3.50 p.m. British Time) at the London Olympics.
Croatia, who feature the competition's top-ranked goalkeeper Josip Pavic, were unbeaten in the group stage which included an 11-6 defeat of world champions Italy.
The Italians, who have not been on the Olympic podium since they won bronze at the 1996 Atlanta Games, also drew with outsiders Greece in the group stage but stepped up a gear in the knockout stages.
"Italy's going up and they won against Olympic champions Hungary. They are growing, so they are hard to play against," Croatia's Miho Boskovic said, wary that the Italians might be peaking just in time for the final.
Croatia won silver in Atlanta, their only medal in water polo since the country gained independence, and Pavic said reaching the final again was already an ambition achieved.
"One part of our dream came true but the other is just to win Sunday's final," he said.
The Italians are hoping that their rising form and strong teamwork will help them against a Croatian side known for their physical play.
"Every time we play as a team and we play our systems and we respect our discipline, the score takes care of itself," Italy's Pietro Figlioli said.
Team mate Maurizio Felugo, playing at his third Olympics, said the Italians would not make the same mistakes as they did in the group stage against the Croatians.
"We remember the match, and we remember the score, and we prepare for another match," he said.
Italian coach Alessandro Campagna, who won a gold medal at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, believes his team can win.
"I told you that each match we would play better and better, and this is what has happened," he said.
Montenegro will play Serbia in the bronze-medal match earlier on Sunday (2.30 p.m. British Time).
(Editing by Clare Fallon)