Basketball / Euroleague Final Four: Messina Expects Smooth Sailing Against Malaga

ATHENS - As far as most observers are concerned one team has already booked its place in Sunday night's Euroleague final.

CSKA Moscow is not expected to face stiff opposition from Unicaja Malaga in the first of today's semifinals in Athens. The defending champion, with a budget of $30 million, is up against a team appearing in the Final Four for the first time in its history and to make things worse, coach Sergio Scariolo's side is missing key players.

Starting center Daniel Santiago is out with a detached retina, his replacement Marko Tusek has a sprained ankle and is not fully fit for tonight's encounter and veteran center Ignacio De Miguel broke several teeth this week.

CSKA, on the other hand, is playing in a record-breaking fifth consecutive Final Four and has the chance to become the second team to win back-to-back Euroleague titles in the last 15 years.

CSKA looks to have the upper hand in every parameter, but the Spanish team can console itself with the fact that the overwhelming majority of the 18,000 fans at the Olympic Indoor Hall will be rooting for a Moscow defeat.

Three hours later "home team" Panathinaikos will take to the court against Tau Vitoria in the tougher of the two matchups.

Vitoria, appearing in its third straight Final Four, will not be put off by the partisan crowd. Two years ago it stunned CSKA in Moscow and last year it dumped Panathinaikos from the quarterfinals even though the Greeks had home court advantage.

Zeljko Obradovic of Panathinaikos and Tau's Bozidar Maljkovic are two of the winningest coaches in European basketball history and combine for nine Euroleague crowns.

Obradovic is looking for his sixth trophy, the last of which came against CSKA coach Ettore Messina in 2002 when the Italian was trainer of Kinder Bologna.

"Will you be out for revenge," reporters asked Messina yesterday. "Let's talk about that Saturday morning," he replied.

The CSKA coach obviously has little doubt as to the identity of the teams that will play in Sunday's final. Certainly not as far as CSKA is concerned.