European club basketball heavyweight Real Madrid will be hard pressed to win its first Euroleague title since 1995 when it hosts the competition’s Final Four this weekend.
The showpiece tournament also features dark horses Fenerbahce Istanbul, who clashes with Real on Friday for a berth in Sunday’s final, as well as CSKA Moscow and Olympiakos Piraeus who meet in the other semi.
Touted as strong favourites to win its ninth overall title, Real faces a banana skin against Fenerbahce who romped into the Final Four under the helm of the Spanish club’s former coach Zeljko Obradovic, who steered it to its last Euroleague trophy two decades ago.
The 55-year old Serb, who has won a record eight titles in the premier club competition with four different clubs, also mentored Real’s present coach Pablo Laso when the Spanish giants won the second-tier Saporta Cup in 1997.
Known for nurturing a free-flowing attacking game relying on flair and talent, Laso pointed out he had no qualms about applying a different strategy after last year’s shock defeat by Maccabi Tel Aviv in the final.
“If we win the Euroleague in an ugly game, I would be as happy as if we won it in a great match,» the 47-year old from the Basque city of Vitoria told the competition’s official website (www.euroleague.net).
“Fenerbahce is a talented team, hard to match up against and able to change their rhythm. I have a lot of respect for (Obradovic), I learnt a lot from him in the two years that I spent with him.”
Heavy investment by Fenerbahce’s owners paid off in the club’s second season under the iron-fisted Obradovic, who brushed aside Maccabi 3-0 in their best-of-five quarter-final. Having won five of his eight Euroleague titles with Panathinaikos, the former Yugoslavia playmaker will rely heavily on the prowess of fellow Serbs Bogdan Bogdanovic and Nemanja Bjelica.
Driven by Fenerbahce’s newly-found appetite for success and his own hunger for silverware, Obradovic said hosting the Final Four was a sword which cuts both ways although he acknowledged Real’s experience could be a telling factor.
“If you win everybody will say it was an obvious advantage and if you lose they will say it was the pressure.
“They will do everything to beat us but and then win the competition but we must go there thinking we have a chance.”
Six-time winner CSKA Moscow faces its old nemesis Olympiakos, who edged it in the 2012 final thanks to a last-gasp hook-shot by forward Giorgos Printezis and also beat the Russians in the 2013 semi-final in London’s O2 Arena.
Olympiakos, who has three titles, will again start as underdog against a CSKA outfit boasting the deepest roster in the competition winning its opening 15 games this term.
Its Greek coach Dimitris Itoudis acknowledged he was relying on the shooting prowess of his key players, including former NBA stalwart Andrei Kirilenko.
“Everyone knows that defence will definitely win games and trophies but I would be a fool not to use the attacking talent and quality we have.”[Reuters]