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BOLOGNA - Maccabi Tel Aviv's traditional thoroughness was on display yesterday as the reigning SuproLeague and Israeli champions flew to Bologna for the Euroleague Final Four, two days ahead of their first game.

Maccabi will face Panathinaikos Athens in the semi-final with the winner meeting the winner of the all-Italian semi-final between Kinder Bologna and Benetton Treviso.

Maccabi held its first training session on Italian soil yesterday and will practice in Kinder's PalaMalaguti arena this morning.

During the flight from Tel Aviv, the Maccabi coaching team of David Blatt and Charles Barton studied video tapes of Panathinaikos' Greek league victory over Olympiakos. The team was joined in Italy by Yotam Halperin, who has been on duty with the national under-21 squad.

As expected, the Israeli contingent in the arena tomorrow will be unmistakable, and not just because of the hundreds of Israelis studying medicine at the city's renowned university.

At least 2,000 Israelis and Italian Jews already have tickets for the semi-final, and if Maccabi makes it into the final, at least 1,000 more are expected to join them.

Several hundred fans who have already arrived in Bologna, or are expected to do so in the next 24 hours, will try to buy tickets here, irrespective of the cost.

No `unwanted encounters'

In addition to Israelis there are several hundred Arabs enrolled at Bologna University and the city has a sizable Muslim community. Local police said `unwanted encounters' between Israelis and Arabs may be unavoidable but they are ready to come down hard on any law-breakers.

Blatt and Barton have recently been practicing various options for their starting line-up, to be ready for anything Panathinaikos coach Zeljko Obradovic can throw at them.

Among the permutations tested, Maccabi has tried playing with both Nate Huffman and Hussein Besok, in an clear attempt to make the most of Maccabi's advantage under the baskets.

Gur Shelef, who is likely to start the semi-final on the bench, hopes the second half of the season - his best in a yellow vest so far - will end with Maccabi reaching its third consecutive Final Four final.

"We can already say that Maccabi has had a positive season," said Shelef yesterday. "Unlike last season (when there were two parallel competitions in European basketball], this season's Final Four sees the cream of European basketball. We have played much better teams than we did last season and we have justified our position among the best on the continent."

Do you share the general view that Maccabi is better than Panathinaikos and you should beat them?

"Panathinaikos is an excellent team and any one of the four teams in the Final Four can win the trophy. I believe we have an advantage under the basket thanks to Huffman, Besok and Nadav Henefeld. We have practiced a lot of different formations, covering almost every eventually, so we are ready for anything."

How disappointed will you be if you don't win the Euroleague?

"Obviously, we are aiming for the gold, so we would be quite disappointed. But as a general principle, if you don't know how to lose, you shouldn't be involved in professional sport."