It’s been one of the most memorable EuroLeague campaigns ever – and it ends this weekend.

Despite the absence of fans for the most part, it’s served up drama, upsets and record-breaking performances along the way.

In the play-offs, whether it was debutants FC Bayern Munich and Zenit St Petersburg pushing their opponents to a fifth game or Anadolu Efes Istanbul narrowly avoiding a historic collapse against Real Madrid, it was a joy to watch.

And now the remaining four teams are in Cologne for the season finale.

The German city was all set to host it this time last year but of course, the pandemic slammed the brakes on the season.

Twelve months later the Lanxess Arena is finally able to welcome the best in Europe, fighting it out to be crowned EuroLeague champions.

MVP’s Niall Gray takes a look at Friday’s semi-finals.

Semi-final #1: CSKA Moscow vs Anadolu Efes Istanbul

First up, a rematch of the 2019 final, in which the heroics of Shane Larkin were not enough to stop CSKA.

Two years later and CSKA – who are technically looking to repeat as champions – are looking for a ninth title that would put them within one of Real Madrid, the most successful club in EuroLeague history.

Dimitris Itoudis – who won five titles as an assistant to the legendary Zeljko Obradovic – is looking to win the third in his own right, all with CSKA.

It’s not been easy for them; they lost Nikola Milutinov to injury and then saw incidents with star guard Mike James lead to the American’s departure.

But come the play-offs, CSKA were all business, sweeping Fenerbahce thanks to a EuroLeague-best 21 points per game from forward Will Clyburn.

If Clyburn can put up similar numbers in Cologne, CSKA have a chance but they’ll also need big performances from the likes of Tornike Shengelia, Joel Bolomboy and Johannes Voigtmann.

Shengelia hasn’t had one of his greatest seasons since making the switch from Baskonia, but now he has a chance to shine in the showpiece event.

CSKA’s best hope lies with their ‘bigs’; they show up and the Russians have a chance.

After the heartbreak of 2019, last year was meant to be Efes’ coronation. They did everything right, surging to the top of the standings, but then suffered another blow as Covid ended their hopes.

For a while this season it seemed like the opportunity was going to pass. At the midpoint of the regular season they were languishing in 11th place.

But then the switch flipped, the Efes of the previous two years was back as they rattled off 14 wins in their last 17 games.

With Larkin back in the team and Vasilje Micic having an MVP season, Efes seemed unstoppable.

And then came the play-offs.

The Turkish side were just FOUR minutes from completing a sweep of Real Madrid, but two successive fourth quarter collapses and before you knew it, Efes were returning home for a game five. Thankfully, Chris Singleton had a career night and Efes’ depth proved the difference.

And their depth is Efes’ greatest strength going into this game. Micic and Larkin are a terrific duo, but Ergin Ataman has so many good players at his disposal. And he will use them all if need be.

So, this semi comes down to a battle between expectation (CSKA) and redemption (Efes).

Having twice been denied, will it be third time lucky for Efes?

Semi-final #2: FC Barcelona vs AX Armani Exchange Milan

Already a EuroLeague star after winning four titles in his playing days, Sarunas Jasikevicius has established himself as one of the rising stars in the coaching circles, having taken hometown club Zalgiris Kaunas to the Final Four in 2018.

A return to Barcelona offered the Lithuanian legend a chance to genuinely compete for the title on an annual basis.

And if he wins in Cologne, Jasikevicius will become the first since Svetislav Pesic in 2003, to win a EuroLeague title as both a player and then coach.

(Little piece of trivia; Jasikevicius was on that Barcelona team 18 years ago – pictured above – which completed Pesic’s double.)

One of the keys to Barcelona’s success rests on the shoulders of one of the best point guards of this generation, Nick Calathes, who when all is said and done, will likely retire the all-time EuroLeague assists leader.

But he’s not the only weapon for Barcelona on what is a ridiculously deep roster, one which also includes Nikola Mirotic, two-time winner Cory Higgins and Brandon Davies, who first shone in the EuroLeague with Jasikevicius at Zalgiris.

And then there’s the sentimental angle. After a hugely successful career in the NBA and with the national team, Pau Gasol returned home late in the season, looking to pick a first title with the team where it all began.

Hoping to stop Barcelona in their tracks is someone else with four titles to his name, Ettore Messina. The last two times an Italian team were champions of Europe (1998 and 2001), Messina was at the helm.

Charged with restoring Milan to greatness in 2019, it was initially a struggle, but a few off-season tweaks last summer have paid off in style in the fashion capital.

One of those changes saw yet another four-time champion join the ranks as Kyle Hines moved from Moscow. Another title winner in Luigi Datome joined, but perhaps the best addition was that of Shavon Shields, whose all-round performances was rewarded with a place in the All-EuroLeague second team.

For Hines, the Final Four is an annual event and he hasn’t missed one since helping Olympiacos to the title in 2012. He’s not going to dominate a game but you can be sure you’ll get great value from the veteran when he’s on the floor.

Datome and Sergio Rodriguez are two more thirty-somethings who give Milan the valuable experience they need for games of this magnitude.

Add in the scoring of Shields and Kevin Punter, another vet in Malcolm Delaney, and Milan have a good mix of talent and experience on a deep roster.

Despite all of that, the Italian side will go into this tournament as the outsiders, with opponents Barcelona favoured to win it all.

But perhaps that will be all the motivation Messina’s side need…


Champion prediction: I try to avoid them where I can, but in the office I worked in, an office I’m not worked in since Covid began, there is a post-it note on the wall from last year where we all picked our 2020 Champion.

On mine I wrote Efes, and even though it’s a year later, I’m sticking with the Turkish side to win it.

Images: Mansoor Ahmed


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