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After a full month of training the Israel basketball team will finally get the EuroBasket 2007 last-chance tournament underway on Wednesday night with its game against Denmark in Aarhus.
Israel's miserable performance in preliminary qualifying last year means the national team needs to finish first in the additional qualifying group play following home and away games against Denmark, Belgium and Ukraine, in order to advance to a three-team competition in Madrid at the end of August.
The winner of the three-team contest will progress to the European basketball championships to be held in Spain at the beginning of September.
The national team will be confident of getting the better of a weak Danish side on Wednesday. The team, however, should bear in mind that it was also certain it would book its place in the European Championships last summer, only to finish last in its group behind Portugal, Macedonia and Bosnia.
The Danes also finished rock bottom in their group last year, winning just one of their six qualifiers. Danish stars Christian Drejer and Michael Andersen are both doubtful for the game against Israel, but even if they don't play Israel will sorely not underestimate its opponents for a second straight summer.
"We're starting a long journey and we must start coming up with the goods," Israel coach Tzvika Sherf said on Tuesday. "The Danes aren't the best team in the group, but every team is dangerous when playing its first game at home. I tell my players every day that we can't afford to underestimate any team.
"The fact that we only played three warm-up games hurt us, but we must concentrate on the job at hand and forget everything else," Sherf added. "We must fight for every ball and play with the right spirit. The players are ready and want to win, but even they don't know what kind of form they're in."
Israel faces Ukraine at the Nokia Arena in its second qualifying game on August 11 and will also host Belgium and Denmark on August 15 and August 18 respectively.
The team will play its final two games away from home, visiting Ukraine on August 22 and playing in Belgium three days later.
The blue-and-white will have to manage in the last-chance tournament without the injured Tal Burstein and Sharon Sasson and will need for other squad members to finally come of age this summer.
Yotam Halperin, Lior Eliyahu and Guy Pnini will have to settle as quickly as possible into their new unaccustomed role of team leaders and guide the team to success with national team veterans Meir Tapiro and Yaniv Green.
"We worked hard and have been through a lot together," Pnini said.
"We had a tough training camp and hopefully the hard work will pay off in the game against Denmark. I'm honored to be a leading player in the team and hope I can play a significant role in the team's success."
Green said: "The most important game of a campaign is the first one. We're the better team on paper, but they have home court advantage and in these kinds of games that can be crucial."
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