The second semi-final is packed with explosive playmakers and a bunch of questions. In their first ever meeting in a Euroleague Final Four, Real Madrid and CSKA Moscow final do battle when it counts in 2018. Emmet Ryan looks ahead to an enthralling match-up
Before we get to all the interesting stuff. This is the last piece I’m writing in Austin, Texas before undertaking a journey that will be, door to door, 23 hours to get to Belgrade assuming no delays. In simple terms, I’m going to be exhausted on Thursday so if you see me, don’t worry if I look grumpy.
Now that’s out of the way, how on Earth did it take so long for two of the biggest names in the sport to meet in a game that mattered on Europe’s biggest basketball weekend?
The first time Real and CSKA both made a Final Four weekend together was 1996. Since then they’ve both made it this far together in 2013, 2014, 2015, and 2017. That’s five trips together, fewer than you might have expected, and zero meetings when it counted. If you want to be pedantic, they did play the third place game last season but nobody cares about that.
They have met to decide the title before, in 1963 CSKA beat Real over three legs in the final of the FIBA Champions Cup, in 1965 Real won over two legs, and in 1969 CSKA won a conventional title game in double-overtime. Those were all before the Final Four format and they have never met in a semi-final of the top competition.
All of which is to say, this game has been a long time coming. On both sides there are injury concerns although in a somewhat unexpected development it’s CSKA with the bigger issues. While Sergio Llull was done until the playoffs and pretty much anyone who played front court for Real this year missing time due to injury, this was a walking wounded version of Los Blancos. They appear however to be in good health coming to Belgrade.
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There are far bigger doubts over CSKA in that regard. Nando de Colo and Kyle Hines both suffered post-season injuries and their fitness remains a question that won’t truly be answered until we see them on the floor on Friday. Ideally, we’d be watching both these teams in perfect condition just go at it but I’ll still happily settle for what’s in store.
There’s one other off the floor aspect to bear in mind with regards to the psychology of this game. With Fenerbahce and Zalgiris up first, the arena is going to look a lot emptier as half-time nears with the fans from the first game going home or to some lovely hostelries to enjoy a beverage. Real have a slight bit more recent experience on that front than CSKA, having dealt with a similar scenario in Milano in 2014, but it’s still something to watch out for.
In terms of the actual battle, the obvious debate is about the back courts. Llull and Luka Doncic vs Sergio Rodriguez and De Colo is just a great tear up waiting to happen. Underneath that is the narrative where Llull stepped into the role of Rodriguez as the man for Madrid while Doncic has been the guy for Los Blancos this season.
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To be honest, while that’s going to be a lot of fun to watch, I’m far more interested in everything else in this match-up. Gustavo Ayon and Edy Tavares are going to be looking to punch holes in CSKA on defence early, to test the health of their interior. Then there’s the small matter of CSKA’s dream duo of role players in Cory Higgins and Andrey Vorontsevich. They are going to get options and the defensive presence of Nikita Kurbanov is always relevant, he just has to show up more offensively in this one.
Back on the other side and Jeffrey Taylor has evolved from being a purely defensive option to a guy who can contribute offensively alongside the swashbuckling barista boys of Jaycee Carroll and Fabien Causeur. Put simply, the atmosphere in the first game will knock the stuffing out of this one but there’s going to be an awful lot of really good basketball out there in the late game.
There’s a whiff of a coin flip to this but I’m going with Real’s battle hardened run here. Having survived a brutal regular season and that playoff series with Panathinaikos, they look ready to get back in the title game.
Prediction: Real Madrid
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