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(photo credit: Asaf Kliger [file])
In an extremely tumultuous season, even by Maccabi Tel Aviv standards, Lior Eliyahu has shone on a consistent basis.
The 23-year-old has proved beyond doubt during this campaign that he is among European basketball's rising stars, leading the team in scoring in the Euroleague regular season, averaging 14.7 points per game while hitting 68 percent of his field goals.
Nevertheless, Eliyahu, who finished sixth in the Euroleague's regular season player ranking, has plenty to prove in Maccabi's second game of the Top 16 at Barcelona on Thursday.
The last time Maccabi played in Spain it suffered a 23-point humbling at the hands of Unicaja Malaga in the final game of the regular season, with Eliyahu limited to 10 points in one of his worst outings of the campaign.
Last week, Eliyahu was in scintillating form once more, scoring 22 points and taking eight rebounds in the 96-65 thrashing of Alba Berlin in Maccabi's Top 16 opener.
However, Eliyahu understands that in Barcelona he will be coming up against far tougher opposition and that anything short of his best won't be good enough.
"Barca has a good frontcourt and backcourt and clearly we will need to raise our level of play to win," Eliyahu said on Wednesday.
"This is one of the toughest games in European basketball and everyone will need to be at their best for Maccabi to claim the victory."
Barcelona lost 85-83 at Real Madrid last week and Eliyahu believes that the fact that the Catalans will be under intense pressure to win on Thursday could work in Maccabi's favor.
"Barcelona is under massive pressure after losing to Real," Eliyahu said. "We are also under pressure, but not as much as they are and I think that could prove decisive."
Maccabi will be playing Barcelona for the 26th time in European basketball's premier competition on Thursday, with the last meeting coming in last season's quarterfinals playoffs, which Maccabi won 2-1 to advance to the Final Four.
Barcelona hasn't lost a home game in the Euroleague this season and finished the regular season with a 9-1 record.
The Catalan team is second in the Spanish league, but will be playing without star playmaker Jaka Lakovic (7.8 ppg, 2.7 apg), who is sidelined through injury until the end of the Top 16.
However, the Spaniards boast one of the deepest rosters in European basketball and should have no trouble finding someone to fill Lakovic's shoes.
Victor Sada (2.9 apg) and Gianluca Basila (6.6 ppg, 2 apg) are expected to play a more significant role, and with such players as Juan Carlos Navarro (14.3 ppg, 3.8 apg) and Roger Grimau (7.5 ppg) in the backcourt it's likely that Lakovic's absence will go almost unnoticed.
Barca's frontcourt is just as impressive, with David Andersen (10.8 ppg, 4.9 rpg), Ersan Ilyasova (9.6 ppg, 6.9 rpg), Fran Vazquez (8.3 ppg, 4.2 rpg) and Daniel Santiago (7.5 ppg, 3.1 rpg) the ones to watch out for under the baskets.
"Each team has some advantages, and we'll try to work on ours to get the result we want," Maccabi coach Pini Gershon said.
"Barcelona lost the first game, so I believe there's more pressure on them, because if they lose again they will be in a difficult situation. They have guards who shoot very well and a very deep and talented front line, but we have good players too.
"This game is a good test for us to see if we are improving as it seems in the last weeks. In 2-3 weeks we'll be a much better team, but this game is now and we need to show we can handle it in the current situation."
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