Basketball / Tough Draw for Maccabi

For the first time this decade, Maccabi Tel Aviv was among the third-ranked teams in yesterday's Euroleague draw in Barcelona. The result was an attractive, if difficult, group that will be no walkover for the perennial Israeli champion.

While opposition of the stature of CSKA Moscow and Tau Ceramica Vitoria (with former Maccabi star Lior Eliyahu) will guarantee plentiful season ticket sales, Group C also includes mediocre teams like Virtus Roma and Union Olimpija of Ljubliana, plus another team that will emerge from the qualifying round.

The Maccabi-CSKA-TAU triangle is enough to whet the appetite of every European basketball fan. The three clubs were in the same topsy-turvy Top-16 group in the 2001/2 season, when Maccabi reached the Final Four. In 2005, 2006 and 2008, all three competed in the Final Four. However, the three clubs are at present on the descent. Maccabi now has a roster devoid of stars; CSKA has retained its leading players, but lost its coach for the past four seasons, Ettore Messina, and now has a young, untested coach in Evgeniy Pashutin, who played under Sharon Drucker at Ra'anana; while Tau added Eliyahu but lost three leading players from last season.

Virtus Roma has become a permanent fixture in the Top 16 in recent years, but failed miserably at this stage last season and struggled in the Italian playoffs under coach Ferdinando Gentile, who nevertheless has been retained for the upcoming campaign. Ljubliana also has a coach who wreaked havoc with Maccabi as a player in the early 1990s: Jurij Zdovc. Following five unsuccessful Euroleague campaigns, Zdovc will try to lead his charges back into the Top 16.

The sixth team in Group C - to be decided in a playoff between the winners of the Greek derby Aris or Maroussi, and either Alba Berlin and Le Mans - could also prove equal to the task of advancing to the Top 16.

Maccabi's chairman Shimon Mizrachi called the draw "difficult."

Officials at the other clubs sounded equally stoic. "We have drawn a very tough group," said CSKA's new coach Pashutin. "In the past six years Maccabi has won the Euroleague twice, reached the final on another two occasions and is almost always in the Final Four. Maccabi reinstated its coach Pini Gershon and has clearly marked its goal for next season. In addition, it's always difficult playing in Tel Aviv in front of a loud, packed Yad Eliahu stadium - we're talking about 10,000 people in there."

Tau manager Carlos Iser warned that his charges have a difficult campaign ahead of them. "We'll have to play against names like Maccabi and CSKA, and Roma also had a good season," he said.

"In my opinion, this is the most difficult group in the Euroleageu," said Roma's coach Gentile. "We are going to play talented, experienced teams while our roster is very young, but we will do our best."

Ljubliana manager Igor Dulenz added: "It's a hard, but attractive group. It'll be difficult to reach the Top 16, but we'll try to knock out some big names. We're stable, particularly at home."

The Euroleague season is scheduled to begin on October 21 and last until January 14, followed by the Top 16 (January 27 to March 11) and the expanded best-of-five quarterfinal playoffs (March 23 to April 7). The Final Four will held May 7 to 9 at the Palais Omnisports Bercy in Paris.