The money time begins for Hapoel Jerusalem tonight as Dan Shamir's team gets its European season under way when it faces Khimki Moscow in Group C of the ULEB Cup.

Khimki was the runner-up in last season's Europe Cup and also finished runner up to CSKA Moscow in the Russian league playoff final and the Russian Cup. The title of runner-up is no compliment at Khimki however and coach Sergei Elevich has been set a clear challenge to win the ULEB Cup and gain Khimki a place in Europe's premier competition, the Euroleague.

Many Russian basketball commentators however doubt Elevich's ability to succeed at the highest level, especially after his not overly successful spell as coach of the Russian national side.

A senior official at rival CSKA has belittled the Khimki coach on more than one occasion, saying: "As long as Elevich is coach of Khimki, the only danger to our title comes from Dinamo.

Khimki has a budget of some $15 million - slightly more than Maccabi Tel Aviv - and among its signings are Kelly McCarty, the forward who led Jerusalem to the ULEB crown in 2004, who joined from now defunct Dinamo St. Petersburg along with Belarussian forward Vladimir Veremeenko and Polish center Maciej Lampe, who had a brief spell with the Phoenix Suns.

The top wage earner at Khimki, with a salary of $1.2 million, is 21-year-old center Pavel Podkolzine, who spent two seasons with the Dallas Mavericks.

The team also features experienced stars such as Italian guard Gianmarco Pozecco and American guard Melvin Booker, both 34 as well as veteran Slovenian guard Borris Gorenc 33, and the Argentine-Jewish center Ruben Wolkowsky, 33.

Despite its balance of young talent and a depth of experience, Russian commentators are skeptical of the chances of Khimki taking Europe's No. 2 competition at its first attempt.

"I don't see Khimki as a better team than Real Madrid, Unics Kazan, Siena or even Hapoel," says Russian basketball writer Vladimir Muzaitzev. "The ULEB Cup could be too tough a hurdle mentally for Khimki. After all, it has never won anything big."