MADRID (Reuters) - European club basketball heavyweights Real Madrid will be hard pressed to win their first Euroleague title since 1995 when they host the competition’s Final Four this weekend.
The showpiece tournament also features dark horses Fenerbahce Istanbul, who clash with Real on Friday for a berth in Sunday’s final, as well as CSKA Moscow and Olympiakos Piraeus who meet in the other semi.
Touted as strong favorites to win their ninth overall title, Real face a banana skin against Fenerbahce who romped into the Final Four under the helm of the Spanish club’s former coach Zeljko Obradovic, who steered them to their last Euroleague trophy two decades ago.
The 55-year old Serb, who has won a record eight titles in the premier club competition with four different clubs, also mentored Real’s present coach Pablo Laso when the Spanish giants won the second-tier Saporta Cup in 1997.
Known for nurturing a free-flowing attacking game relying on flair and talent, Laso pointed out he had no qualms about applying a different strategy after last year’s shock defeat by Maccabi Tel Aviv in the final.
“If we win the Euroleague in an ugly game, I would be as happy as if we won it in a great match,” the 47-year old from the Basque city of Vitoria told the competition’s official website (www.euroleague.net).
“Fenerbahce are a talented team, hard to match up against and able to change their rhythm. I have a lot of respect for (Obradovic), I learnt a lot from him in the two years that I spent with him.”
Heavy investment by Fenerbahce’s owners paid off in the club’s second season under the iron-fisted Obradovic, who brushed aside Maccabi 3-0 in their best-of-five quarter-final.
Having won five of his eight Euroleague titles with Panathinaikos, the former Yugoslavia playmaker will rely heavily on the prowess of fellow Serbs Bogdan Bogdanovic and Nemanja Bjelica.
Driven by Fenerbahce’s newly-found appetite for success and his own hunger for silverware, Obradovic said hosting the Final Four was a sword which cuts both ways although he acknowledged Real’s experience could be a telling factor.
“If you win everybody will say it was an obvious advantage and if you lose they will say it was the pressure.
“They will do everything to beat us but and then win the competition but we must go there thinking we have a chance.”
Six-time winners CSKA Moscow face their old nemesis Olympiakos, who edged them in the 2012 final thanks to a last-gasp hook-shot by forward Georgios Printezis and also beat the Russians in the 2013 semi-final in London’s O2 Arena.
Olympiakos, who have three titles, will again start as underdogs against a CSKA outfit boasting the deepest roster in the competition who won their opening 15 games this term.
Their Greek coach Dimitris Itoudis acknowledged he was relying on the shooting prowess of his key players, including former NBA stalwart Andrei Kirilenko.
“Everyone knows that defense will definitely win games and trophies but I would be a fool not to use the attacking talent and quality we have.”
Editing by Pritha Sarkar