Basketball / The Turkish-Israeli axis
Two teams don't have to worry about their local leagues, with renowned coaches and promises of reaching the Final Four after barely reaching the Top 16. There are many similarities between Maccabi Tel Aviv and Efes Pilsen, who will meet tomorrow at the Yad Eliahu stadium.
Like Maccabi, Pilsen has no real opponent at home, where it boasts a 17-1 record. But even a massive $25 million budget and a squad of experienced, ripe hoopsters hasn't really helped the Turkish team - which ended the first stage of the Euroleague with a disappointing four wins and six losses, though none of the defeats were by large margins.
"In the past two years, the club has been investing vast amounts in an attempt to return to the continent's elite," recounts a Turkish journalist. "But in practice it's been chaos."
Head coach Ergin Ataman has yet to balance out his squad, and has also encountered personal problems with some of his players. Ever since the coach was overheard complaining that Bostjan Nachbar was a disappointment, the Slovenian forward has borne a grudge and underperformed.
Now Pilsen is stuck with a player who costs a million euros a season, yet averages only seven points and two rebounds per game in Europe.
American playmaker Bootsy Thornton, who was signed from Sienna a year and a half ago, has become a bench player, while the Serbian Igor Rakocevic, the highest-paid player on the squad, is still struggling to take up the leader's mantle on the parquet.
But then came the Top-16 - and like Maccabi, the picture is looking brighter. After losing in Madrid, Pilsen beat Sienna 88-78 at home with an all-around team performance. Now all four teams boast a 1-1 record, and everything is open.
"We were lucky to reach the Top-16," Ataman admitted in a press conference at the outset of that stage, "but let's hope for a new beginning. It's clear that we have to improve our game. There are no weak teams [in our group], and each one is capable of winning any game. We are aware that Real Madrid and Sienna are the favorites to advance to the quarterfinals, but Pilsen and Maccabi are both capable of surprising."
For now, at least, he has been right.