Europe's finest set for showdown in Istanbul
A fiercely competitive and highly entertaining Euroleague season is headed for a fitting finale next weekend when Europe's top four basketball teams lock horns for the title in Istanbul's Sinan Erdem Arena.
The continent's premier club competition, featuring 24 teams, has produced a plethora of rip-roaring contests en route to the Final Four featuring holders Panathinaikos Athens, CSKA Moscow, Barcelona and Olympiakos Piraues.
The opening semi-final brings a mouth-watering contest between Panathinaikos and CSKA, who have won six titles each and reached the season-ending tournament in contrasting fashion.
While CSKA crusied to a 3-1 win over debutants Bilbao in the best-of-five playoff series, Panathinaikos snatched victory from the jaws of defeat against last season's runners-up Maccabi Tel Aviv.
Trailing 2-1 in the series, Panathinaikos were also behind with three minutes left in Game 4 before they turned the tables on their rivals and squeezed through with an epic 86-85 home win in the tie-breaker in Athens.
Their trophy-laden Serbian coach Zeljko Obradovic, who has won eight Euroleague titles with four different teams and five of them with Panathinaikos, would love nothing more than to walk down memory lane with the trophy in his hands.
The 52-year old former Yugoslavia point guard won his maiden European title in Istanbul 1992 with Partizan Belgrade in his debut season as coach.
"It was my first year as coach, we had the youngest team ever to win the Euroleague and we couldn't play our home games on our own court all season," Obradovic told the competition's official website (www.euroleague.net).
"All those factors made it something to remember forever but I won't be celebrating the 20th anniversary of that in Istanbul, I will go there with my team to concentrate on our work as we have always done to see if we can celebrate this one."
The strength of CSKA, who last won the title in 2008, lies in the fact that nine of the 15 players on their roster are home-grown Russian talents personified by former Utah Jazz forward Andrei Kirilenko.
The 31-year old, who first played for CSKA from 1998 to 2001, returned home this season after a 10-year stint in the NBA and was one of the few players to stay in Europe after this season's July-December lockout in North America had ended.
Serbian centre Nenad Krstic and his compatriot Milos Teodosic, a verastile playmaker with an eye for long-range shots, complete the team's backbone steered by Lithuanian coach Jonas Kazlauskas.
"It may look very simple if you have so many good players on the roster but we have improved a lot by learning to play as a team," Kazlauskas said.
"Even our veterans are now playing better than they did before."
Barcelona, the 2010 winners, will be hot favourites against 1997 champions Olympiakos in Friday's other semi-final, having stormed in the Final Four with an 18-1 record.
Driven by Spain shooting guard Juan Carlos Navarro, the Euroleague's all-time leading scorer, Barcelona should be too strong for a new-look Olympiakos team which upset more fancied Italians Montepaschi Siena to get to Istanbul.
But Barca coach Xavi Pasqual struck a note of caution after seeing his team get knocked out of last season's playoffs by Panathinaikos.
"Olympiakos earned their right to play in the Final Four and I am sure they will make things hard for us," he said.
"The fact that we only lost once all season doesn't mean the road has been easy for us, it only shows that we've done a great job but what you've done to get to the Final Four doesn't mean much once you are there."