It might be a classic. It might be a Clasico. But the Euroleague semi-final between Real Madrid and FC Barcelona tonight in London (ESPN, 8pm) is, as ever, more than just an ordinary game.
Not since 1996 have these two great rivals squared off at a Final Four. “The only one repeating from that game is me,” recalls Real coach Pablo Luno, a player back then.
“What remains is the sports rivalry, the fact that you play against a team from your same league and country. That rivalry between Madrid and Barcelona goes back many years and is present in football and basketball.” He was a loser that year. This time, he hopes, might be different.
The giants from the Spanish capital were defending champions then. They have not won a European title since, watching their old adversaries from Catalunya achieve sustained success at home and abroad.
Both have spent big, with budgets in excess of £20m that demand trophies.
Inevitably, whenever and wherever they meet, it carries significance. Their meeting at The 02 will not be a meeting of strangers, with no ploys hidden away.
“It will be difficult to have tactical surprises,” said Barca coach Xavi Pascual.
“We have met each other so many times. We know each other so well. We have prepared well. Both of us want victory but it will be a Clasico within the Final Four which will be very special.”
The fans who have travelled to the UK will add colour that the hosts cannot provide. The Euroleague has been made at home by London, with a huge fan event in Trafalgar Square, a lavish launch party at the City Hall plus the trapping of a venue which is among the finest in the world.
This is still, however, a country which will barely notice. Tickets have been slow to sell, with heavy discounts offered in recent days to fill up the empty seats and tempt the public to witness an event which has no British involvement save for its destination.
The players, you suspect, will barely notice. Their eye is on taking the bragging rights but most importantly, advancing into Sunday’s final by seeing off their Spanish rivals.
“It will definitely be a close game,” forecast Madrid’s Jaycee Carroll. “Details, concentration, focus are things going into this kind of game that you must concentrate on. I think the key would be rebounding.
“The team that has rebounded better in the past has won. I don’t think there’s any particular match-up that will affect the game most.
“There are the two stars, Rudy (Fernandez) and (Juan Carlos) Navarro, but without the team playing its best it really doesn’t matter. Whether you know the team or not, you have to go out there and play. I don’t see it as an advantage or a disadvantage.”
Real, over the season, have been the more convincing of the two, storming clear in the ACB while coasting into Final Four. Barcelona, wounded by the loss of Pete Mickael to illness, have not looked their best. Injuries to Nate Jawai and CJ Wallace have also been a blight in recent weeks. Expectations have deliberately been played down.
There is, says their veteran guard, Sarunas Jasikevicius, a need to be ready for battle.
“We have to go and fight,” he claimed. “We have to concentrate on a lot of details and take them out of their sweet spots, so to speak. We defended their offense pretty decently lately.
“We got punished a lot on one-on-ones and offensive rebounds, giving them a lot of points that we were not able to make up later on in the game; that’s the reason why we lost to them last game. All those points, I consider them cheap and you have to eliminate as many cheap points as possible.”
That may make it a grind. But their fans will not care. A win would, at least, allow them to depart on Sunday with pride intact. Losing? Simply too painful to contemplate.
Olympiacos out for upset
It is a rarity in Euroleague history that the reigning champions come back to Final Four as the rank outsiders to retain their title. For Olympiaos, that is a status they are happy to embrace going into their semi-final with CSKA Moscow (5pm, ESPN).
“We’ve always been underdogs, even last year,” declares their American Kyle Hines. “That’s a position we’re comfortable in. We don’t mind what people think of us. We just will go out and try to do our job well.”
Their Russian opponents are favourites, not just to advance but to lift this title. Expense has been no object. In Ettore Messina, they have a coach who has been here before and has a wardrobe of t-shirts. But CSKA, re-built after their collapse in last year’s final with the Greeks, have slowly pulled together as the season has gone on.
“We had some changes early in the season and it took some time for us to play well,” states Viktor Khryapa. “But particularly at the important time, when it came to the playoffs, we did well.”
There is pressure on Moscow to come up trumps in London. They have waited 12 months to banish their nightmare of Istanbul 2012 when the trophy was in their grasp when they led by 19 points but they let it slip away. Now, says Messina, is not the time to dwell on that 62-61 defeat.
“I was aware of the pain and suffering from the year,” says the Italian, who began his second spell with CSKA after leaving the LA Lakers last summer.
“My focus has been to prepare, to build the best team possible and to consider the talent in the tea. Now it’s not the right time to think about what happened last year. You can have a great sense of motivation so you can have revenge. But if you think about what you can take in cold blood, it can get you too excited.”
There is still pressure on Olympiacos to repeat, Hines insists. “That comes along with the title. But with the type of characters we have, we know and understand what’s at stake here.”
In Vassilis Spanoulis, they have the newly-crowned Euroleague MVP. And the intangibles that have taken them so far before. “We will try to make use of all our talent and fighting spirit,” their coach Georgios Batzokas underlines.
“Until the end we’ll fight to win. We’ll of course try to express the talent of our players. In my opinion, it always exists. We have survived many tough games. From here we want to become a better team than what we were when we came here.”
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