By Sarah Young
LONDON (Reuters) - Spain's women lined up a quarter-final clash against Britain, while the U.S., Beijing silver medallists, face tougher opponents in Italy in their knock-out match, and Australia will play China, who like Britain are yet to post a win.
Spain, whose women's team is making its Olympic debut, announced their contention for the podium with their group-topping finish, upsetting the Americans, one of the favourites for a medal with a team that boasts two four-time Olympians.
The women's competition in London is considered much more open than at previous Games given that defending Olympic champion Netherlands and reigning world champion Greece are both absent following shock defeats in the qualification stages.
"It's the first time we have come to the Olympics. We come here not just to play but to win," said Spain's diminutive Anni Espar, sporting scratches and a bloodshot eye as a result of the relentless wrestle between players that characterises water polo.
While Spain and the U.S. drew in their clash on Wednesday, under the tournament scoring system Spain finished top of the group due to their superior goal difference against third-placed Hungary.
With less than 10 seconds remaining of their match against Hungary, Espar scored the goal that guaranteed their top spot finish, netting the team a 13-11 victory, after it earlier let a three-goal advantage slip away.
"We needed to score, so it was a bit tense. We kept calm and we scored," said Espar, who scored a hat-trick.
Spanish head-coach Miguel Angel Oca was red-carded in the adrenalin filled clash and world governing body FINA said he would be suspended for the quarter-final.
Australia cruised past Russia 11-8 to top their half of the draw and set up a quarter-final against China, who lost 7-6 to the U.S. in the final match of the day.
The Stingers, the team's nickname in Australia, are another medal favourite, and handed Russia their first defeat of the tournament with an 11-8 victory.
The women's water polo contest features eight teams, split into two groups with all of the teams going through to the knock-out stages but higher placed teams ensuring they meet the lower ranked teams from the other group in the quarter-finals.
"We've come here for one job and that's to get the gold medal so just six games, three down, just ticking the boxes as we keep going," Australia's Nicola Zagame, 21, said after scoring a cool four goals from four attempts.
Italy beat Britain, who are competing as a result of their host nation status, 10-5 to post their first win of the tournament and take third place in group B.
Russia will play Hungary in the other quarter-final match. The two countries rivalry in men's water polo was made famous by the "Blood in the Water" match at the 1956 Games.
A number of films have been made about the vicious clash which took place just over a month after the Soviet Union quelled a Hungarian revolution against Soviet rule.
(Reporting by Sarah Young; Editing by Alison Williams)