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(photo credit: Channel 10)
Maccabi Tel Aviv goes in search of its second consecutive away Euroleague victory on Thursday night when it visits Lottomatica Roma in Italy and in the process will look to strengthen its hold on second place in Group B.
Maccabi (6-3) won three of its last four games before the two-week holiday break and the pieces are finally starting to fall into place for coach Neven Spahija.
Roma (3-6), on the other hand, has lost three of its last four games and is also struggling in the Italian league, losing six of its first 13 games of the season.
Twenty-four teams are competing in three groups during the regular season. Each team plays two games, home-and-home, against the other teams in its group. The top five teams in each group, plus the highest-ranked sixth-place team, qualify for the Top 16 stage.
Thursday's game will be a clash of styles. Maccabi is the highest scoring team in the Euroleague with 90.6 points per game, while the Roman club is the second worst with 71.1 ppg.
"I think this game depends on Maccabi Tel Aviv," Spahija said on Wednesday. "If we play the same way we did in our away games against Panathinaikos and Malaga, then we have a big chance to win this game."
Spahija will be boosted by the return from injury of Israeli swingman Tal Burstein, who will be playing for the first time this season.
Burstein was a key part of Maccabi's triumphant squads in recent seasons and his experience could prove crucial in the new-look team built in Tel Aviv this year.
"Of course, there are things on the team I can improve with my experience," Burstein said. "The team has done a pretty good job so far and I just want to come and help with whatever I can."
Spahija was delighted with the prospect of finally having Burstein at his disposal. "I think that with every day that passes, we are improving. I believe Burstein is a very important part of the team," he said.
"I think he can help us defensively and offensively. I don't expect a miracle from him and we know how to use him after his long layoff."
Roma is led by European basketball legend Dejan Bodiroga who, at the age of 33, is still coming up with the goods for the Italian club. The Serbian averages 13.6 points and 4.6 rebounds per game, but despite attracting most of the attention, will probably not be the player who makes the difference for the hosts.
Lottomatica's American backcourt of David Hawkins (10.7 ppg, 2.7 steals per game) and Mira Chatman (7.6 ppg, 2.4 spg) will pressure Maccabi guards Will Bynum (13.9 ppg, 2.9 assists per game), Derrick Sharp (10.6 ppg) and Yotam Halperin (9 ppg) for the entire 40 minutes. Should they manage to strain the Israeli champions' playmaking, Tel Aviv may find itself in a tighter game that it had bargained for.
"We have to win this game if we wish to have a chance to qualify for the Top 16," Roma coach Jasmin Repesa told the Euroleague Web site. "We know Maccabi are a very strong side, a team that improves game by game, but for us this is an important game.
"I hope that lots of Roma fans will come to the Pallalottomatica Arena; we really need their support in order to have a chance to beat them. We have to forget about our troubles and concentrate on a game against a very difficult opponent."
Loukas Mavrokefalidis (8.9 ppg, 6 rpg) and fit-again Ognjen Askrabic (8 ppg, 5.2 rpg) will have the thankless job of slowing down Nikola Vujcic (14.8 ppg, 7.8 rpg, 4 apg). Luca Garri (5.3 ppg, 5 rpg) will lend a helping hand under the baskets, but with Lior Eliyahu (11.8 ppg, 5.6 rpg) and Jamie Arnold (8.3 ppg, 5 rpg) and others helping Vujcic fight for Maccabi's supremacy in the paint, the hosts' big men will likely face a long and arduous night.
"Anytime you play against somebody at this level, you always expect that they are going to bring something that's going to be difficult for you to contend with," Arnold said on Wednesday. "I think the most important thing is that we play our game. They may be a team to reckon with but if we come with our best effort, then we will be fine."