Game of the Week: CSKA vs. Maccabi. Expect the unexpected

Jan 11, 2019 by Frankie Sachs, Print
Game of the Week: CSKA vs. Maccabi. Expect the unexpected

To understand why the rivalry between CSKA Moscow and Maccabi FOX Tel Aviv is so well known, you must climb into the history books. In Israel, the first game ever between the two clubs is considered the game that put Israeli basketball "on the map." In Russia, the victory over Maccabi in the 2006 Final Four in Prague is the game that triggered a golden age.

So first, a brief history lesson. In 1977, there were no diplomatic relations between Israel and the Soviet Union. When Maccabi and CSKA were drawn to face each other in the semifinal group stage of the European Champions Cup, there was no way to get CSKA to play in Tel Aviv nor for Maccabi to play in Moscow. They could have each claimed a technical win, as happened in the quarterfinal stage two years earlier, however, a compromise was worked out this time; they would play a one-game, winner-take-all game in Virton, Belgium. The victor would likely advance to the EuroLeague final in Belgrade. The loser would watch from television.

CSKA was at the time a four-time European champion and Maccabi had not yet played for a title. Accordingly, CSKA, led by Sergei Belov was the favorite. The matchup was viewed in Israel as David vs. Goliath. Yet Maccabi came out more motivated, jumped to a 12-3 start, led 41-38 at halftime and prevailed 91-79. After the game, Maccabi captain Tal Brody grabbed a microphone and shouted into the television camera: "We are on the map! And we are staying on the map – not only in sports, but in everything."

Maccabi would go on to defeat Mobilgirgi Varese for its first EuroLeague crown, but the most-remembered game from that season, a game about which songs would be sung and documentaries made, was Maccabi's first victory over CSKA.

Fast forward nearly three decades and you find Maccabi still atop Europe, but CSKA a seemingly star-crossed team that had not tasted EuroLeague glory since 1971. The club invested heavily in a powerful roster for the 2004-05 season, in which the Final Four would be played in Moscow, and produced one of the greatest regular seasons in competition history. With all eyes looking forward to a clash between mighty CSKA and defending champion Maccabi in the championship game, CSKA slipped up in the semifinal and lost to Baskonia Vitoria-Gasteiz. Maccabi became the back-to-back champion in the Russian capital.

A year later, CSKA had largely rebuilt its roster under new coach Ettore Messina, while Maccabi was seeking a third straight championship. They both returned to the Final Four in Prague. Theo Papaloukas put on a show to lead CSKA to a long-awaited EuroLeague triumph, 73-69, over Maccabi. There was little that could have made that title sweeter, but taking out Maccabi in the final was icing on the cake.

The two teams have met in many big games since. There is little from today's rosters to connect CSKA and Maccabi to the teams from 2006; current CSKA forward Nikita Kurbanov was in uniform that night in Prague, but did not play. Maccabi general manager Nikola Vujcic was then the team's starting center. Nevertheless, the 1977 clash in Virton and the 2006 title game in Prague create a story that will always make games between these sides interesting.

It is interesting to note that Maccabi coach Ioannis Sfairopoulos spent the 2011-12 season as an assistant coach to Jonas Kazlauskas on the CSKA bench and watched as that team advanced to the championship game in Istanbul before falling to Georgios Printezis and Olympiacos in the closing seconds. Injured Maccabi guard Jeremy Pargo also spent one season with the Russian champion.

When the players walk into the arena on Friday night, Nando De Colo and Tarik Black won't be buoyed by accomplishments of yesteryear of failures that happened long before they ever picked up a basketball. The stars of tonight's game have different goals. CSKA is third in the league and looking to remain strong to lock up a playoff berth and then home-court advantage for the playoffs. Maccabi is two wins out of the playoff zone and knows that a victory in the Russian capital could be exactly what it needs to go on a run that leads it into the top half of the table.

Yet, if we are to lean on games from the past to glean some CSKA vs. Maccabi theme, it could be, "Expect the unexpected." Maccabi has lost its last eight games against CSKA in Moscow. Its last win was on an Anthony Parker fadeaway triple on the buzzer in February 2004. Maccabi edged CSKA in their 2014 semifinal in Milan after CSKA forward Victor Khryapa dropped a pass that led to a go-ahead Tyrese Rice layup in the closing seconds.

CSKA, which has now won nine in a row overall against Maccabi, has recorded some dominant performances against its Israeli rival. It has reached triple figures in points three times and scored at least 90 on eight occasions against Maccabi since the turn of the century. In that same period, Maccabi has scored 90 against CSKA once. So by all factors – current stats, streaks, recent form, CSKA is once again the favorite, but whenever these teams meet, be advised to expect the unexpected.