tapiro hapoel 88.
(photo credit: )
Just three days after securing its place in EuroBasket 2007 via a grueling qualifying tournament, Israel opens its eighth consecutive European Championship against defending champion Greece in Grenada, Spain, on Monday night.
The national team claimed the 16th and final spot in EuroBasket 2007 by defeating Macedonia on Friday night, beating out nine other teams to win the additional qualifying tournament.
Greece, the runner-up to Spain at last year's World Championships, is superior to Israel in every facet of the game.
The blue-and-white, however, have won seven of its eight qualifiers in the last three and a half weeks and will be hoping to maintain its recent momentum on Monday night.
"Spain and Greece are my favorites to win the Euro title," Israel coach Tzvika Sherf said. "I said during the 2005 championships that Greece is the best team in Europe and everybody laughed at me. I can't find any flaw in the Greek team."
Israel faces Russia on Tuesday night and plays its final Group A game the following day against Serbia. The top three sides in the group will advance to the next round where they will face the top three teams from Group B. The first four placed sides in the new six team group will progress to the quarterfinals.
Greece, which defeated Israel 67-61 to advance to the last eight of EuroBasket 2005, has an almost perfect squad. Theodoros Papaloukas has been one of the best players in the Euroleague in the last two seasons, helping CSKA Moscow to the title in 2005 and to the runner-up position last year.
Papaloukas, however, usually only comes off the bench for the Greeks, with Panathinaikos star Dimitrios Diamntidis occupying the playmaker position in the starting line-up.
Diamntidis, the Euroleague's defensive player of the year, will likely object Israel's top scorer Yotam Halperin to his trademark suffocating defense and attempt to thwart the Israelis' excellent shooting.
"The Greeks are obviously the favorites and we must be aggressive against them," Halperin said.
"We are in the toughest group in the championships but we can beat Greece and maybe even steal a win against Russia. The Greeks have five of the best guards in Europe. We must remain composed throughout the entire game because if we make a mistake it will be costly."
San Antonio Spurs guard Vasileios Spanoulis will threaten the Israeli defense from every point on the floor and will rack up points even against Israel's best defenders.
Lazaros Papadopoulos, Nikolaos Chatzivrettas and Nikolaos Zisis will also be a handful for Israel's players and will pose a constant danger.
"Greece is the European champion, but we gave them a run for their money in the last championships," Israel center Erez Markovitch said. "We aim to win every game we play. If we play as a team and continue to fight for every ball we can beat any team."
A single win will likely be enough for Israel to advance to the next round and Lior Eliyahu, who together with Halperin and Meir Tapiro has been one of the team's best player in recent weeks, is confident the national team can achieve that goal.
"It's no secret that our group is very tough," the Maccabi Tel Aviv forward said.
"However, I think that we have the potential to play at a level that will allow us to win at least one game."
Ido Kozikaro, who has become a key member of the team in the last four games, believes that the high expectations the Greeks face ahead of the championships could play to Israel's advantage.
"Greece is the European champion and obviously the pressure will be on them," Kozikaro said.
"I think we have the ability to beat one or two teams in this group. It won't be easy as our opponents have NBA players and European stars.
"However, I think some of the teams might be underestimating us and that could help us."