Basketball / Maccabi's Real Challenge

Real Madrid's dynamic president Florentino Perez wants to build an all-conquering basketball team in parallel with the Galacticos Mark II model he is building for the club's revered soccer team. The highly ambitious president decided that it's not right that the most successful team in European basketball history has not reached the Final Four since 1996. It has not won a European trophy since 1995.

What Perez decides, happens. He launched the basketball Galacticos program by signing the revered coach Ettore Messina in June last year. Messina replaced Joan Plaza, who paved the way with a string of strange decisions that allowed Maccabi to reach the Final Four in 2008. After three unsuccessful seasons under Plaza, during which Real failed to add to its tally of 22 Spanish league titles, it was time to rebuild.

Messina got to work quickly, gathering a squad including European stars of the past, present and future. There were veterans - Argentine point guard Pablo Prigioni and Serbian small forward Marko Jaric. Messina also picked up Spanish power forward Jorge Garbajosa, Lithuanian center Darjus Lavrinovic, power forward Novica Velickovic - the great talent signed from Partizan Belgrade - and Croatian center Ante Tomic.

There was only one leading player Perez could not lay his hands on: Europe's outstanding hoopster this season, Ricky Rubio, who was chosen by the Minnesota Timberwolves in the NBA draft but joined Barcelona instead. The difference shows.

"Real is a good, talented team, but not sufficiently destructive and doesn't look like the kind of machine that cannot be derailed," says El Mundo Deportivo journalist Juan Huguet. "The team is still looking for itself, and its results can be unpredictable."

Messina is the best-paid employee at the club - between 2 million and 2.5 million euros a season. The Italian coach is known to be conservative, relying on talents he knows well, even if they are occasionally past their prime. Jaric, for example, came to Real after seven years in the NBA.

Menorca-born point guard Sergio Llull is having his best season so far for Real. The 22-year-old averages 8.7 points in 20 minutes per game, with excellent figures: 77 percent for two-point shots and 47 percent from three-point land. "I'm just glad I can contribute to the team," he says. Regarding tomorrow's opponents in the Top 16 round, he says that "Maccabi at home are always the favorites. Period. This doesn't mean we have no chance of winning, but it won't be simple."

Even the defeats to Netanya and Siena could not convince Llull that Maccabi is no longer the force it was. "From my familiarity with Maccabi and the winning mentality at the club, those defeats will only spur them on. It's too early to talk about the Final Four, but that clearly is our target."

Europe is Real's prime target this year. The Spanish league - undoubtably the best in Europe and probably better than the Euroleague - is not Messina's top priority, at least until the playoff stage. Unbeaten so far this year, Real is currently in third in the league. The target is clear: The Euroleague Final Four and final of the Spanish league playoffs.

Messina is sure he knows how to get there. "We need to play with a tight defense" has been his mantra throughout his coaching career. This was clear in Real's first 11 Euroleague games (of which it won nine). The opposition was limited to an average of 68.85 points. Real's offense, meanwhile, has registered an average 80.63 points.