Maccabi Tel Aviv will meet CSKA Moscow in Moscow tomorrow night in a rematch of last season's final as it seeks a place in the Euroleague Final Four.
Maccabi faces a tough task against the team that denied it a third straight Euroleague crown last season and one that comes into the series on the back of a 17-0 run in the Euroleague and only one defeat in the competition this season.
Perhaps the toughest hurdle for Maccabi though will be CSKA's Italian coach Ettore Messina, who holds a 14-1 record against Israeli teams - his only defeat coming against Effi Birenboim's Maccabi Ramat Gan in 1989. He has beaten Maccabi coach Neven Spahija in all seven encounters between the two.
While CSKA goes into the game the clear favorite against a Maccabi team that has failed to repeat its form of recent years, Messina is not taking his opponents lightly.
"I hear that in Israel people say CSKA is the clear favorite and they expect a short series," Messina told Haaretz earlier this week," but in a knock-out system it is hard to plan beyond one game. We will try to play our best and not to forget who we are playing against. If we lose the first game it really will be a short series."
"We are still learning Maccabi, but anyone who knows me knows that there won't be an ounce of contempt on my part or the players'," he added.
Like Maccabi, CSKA was beaten in its last domestic league game in the run-up to the series, but the Italian is not worried.
"After you lose a game, people forget your winning run [12 games], but we are trying to understand what went wrong, especially on the eve of such an important series."
After taking CSKA to its first European title in 35 years in his first season as coach of the team last year, Messina silenced his doubters at CSKA and took the pressure off with a first European crown in 35 years last season. And he comes into the quarterfinal series against Maccabi with a more relaxed side than the one that faced Pini Gershon's team in last year's final. Maccabi, however, is a much changed team that has lost its star players, has a new coach in Neven Spahija, and the pressure is very much on with tensions boiling over among the management.
Co-owners David Federman and Ra'anan Katz have expressed disappointment with the choice of players.
"We have wasted money on players not worthy of wearing the Maccabi shirt," Federman said earlier this season of Maccabi's choice of foreign players, in a remark clearly aimed at veteran chairman Shimon Mizrahi and team manager Moni Fanan.
Federman and Katz are particularly disappointed though with the choice of Spahija as Pini Gershon's replacement - a choice that hasn't gone down well with the fans either.
After Maccabi's defeat to Hapoel Jerusalem in the Premier League last week, several Maccabi fans spotted the Croat walking out of Malha in the opposite direction of the team bus.
"If he can't even find the bus," they joked at his expense, "then how can he see what's happening on the court."
After Maccabi's Top 16 win over Lottomatica Roma, one distressed Maccabi fan walked up to Spahija outside Yad Eliahu and said: "Neven, what am I going to do? I have ticket to the Final Four."
Spahija returned a piercing gaze and replied sarcastically: "Don't worry, I'll refund your money."
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