A pair of traditional Euroleague powers will clash at the Athens Indoor Olympic Hall on Thursday when defending Euroleague champion Panathinaikos hosts AXA FC Barcelona for a Group C battle in the Greek capital. The Greens have enjoyed a somewhat favorable start to the season; This will be their third home game. So far head coach Zeljko Obradovic's troops have not been brilliant, but they have been strong enough to eek out three wins in as many tries, mainly through the clutch play of Vassilis Spanoulis and Sarunas Jasikevicius – two players who were not with the club when it lifted the Euroleague crown in May. Boasting arguably the deepest backcourt in the league, the Greens have four guards averaging double figures in points: Final Four MVP Dimitris Diamantidis, Sani Becirovic, Spanoulis and Jasikevicius. The team's dominant guard play can be seen through the statistics as it ranks last in the league in offensive (2.7) and overall (21.7) rebounds per game, although it is also among the leaders with just 10 turnovers per game. Meanwhile, Barcelona has bounced back from a tough opening-season loss at Partizan with a pair of home wins. Guard Jaka Lakovic and center Mario Kasun have been two of head coach Dusko Ivanovic's top players this season. The game sees a pair of former Green stars now with Barca – Lakovic, who helped Panathinaikos to three Greek championships and a Euroleague Final Four appearance in four seasons with the club, and playmaker Pepe Sanchez, who helped Panathinaikos to the 2002 Euroleague title – return to their old home. Sanchez and Lakovic inspire a crisp passing game that sees Barcelona lead the league in assists (19 apg.). Because of the depth on these teams, it becomes difficult to foresee which matchups could dictate the outcome of the game. Two worth keeping an eye on are between former teammates and do-it-all guards Spanoulis and Lakovic, while Mike Batiste and Andrija Zizic must stand tall against Barca big men Kasun and veteran Denis Marconato. Both teams are still in the coming-together stage of the season, making this game one that either team could pull out. But the remarkable depth of these teams also sets up a situation where every tactical decision by the coaches could draw a reaction as this game goes to the closing minutes, where it could once more be some of the top guards in the continent who decide the game.
Panathinaikos head coach, Zeljko Obradovic
"We are facing a very serious team, which plays really aggressively in both offense and defense. They have two players at every position and great depth on the bench. The game against Barcelona is definitely a great test for us, which gives us motivation to fight with the highest concentration and to stay unbeaten in the Euroleague, improving our basketball at the same time. And of course, it is a big chance for our fans to attend a very interesting basketball battle and help us win the game with their support."
Panathinaikos guard, Sarunas Jasikevicius
"Mentally the game against Barcelona is very tough for me, since I played there for three years and won many titles including the Euroleague in 2003. I have never hidden my love and respect for this club, but now I belong to Panathinaikos and with no doubt I will give my best to help my team achieve its fourth win in a row. I have seen Barca's roster and surprisingly none of them were my teammates four years ago. What I want to say about this team is that they have an excellent coach and they know what they are doing on the court. As for my team Panathinaikos, we work really hard in practice and hopefully we will see the results in the games."
AXA FC Barcelona head coach, Dusko Ivanovic
"Obviously, Panathinaikos is right now one of the best teams in European basketball. They have a lot of plays in their offense, with so many options. They like to play with an open power forward in order to get a lot of good shots. Moreover, they use the pick-and-roll with [Mike] Batiste and this is a player who can take advantage of these plays. All their outside players are very good one-on-one, and are able to be the keys of a game. All the team can make an extra pass and this gives them an outstanding range of shooting. They like to play two on the low post, trying to get an advantage."
AXA FC Barcelona forward, Alex Acker
"It will be a special occasion for me coming back to Athens. I played there last year, for Olympiacos, and I know something about the rivalry between those two teams. This is an important game for us and I‘ll be very pleased coming back home with a win. But I know how difficult it will be, because Panathinaikos is one of the best teams in the Euroleague. All their players are first-class. They have a long and experienced roster and every one of their players would be a star in any team."
Wednesday, November 14, 2007