Crunch-time for blue-and-white vs Serbia

Israel has rebounded with road wins over weak Iceland and Slovakia, but its true test is against Group A's two strongest teams.

GUARD GAL MEKEL in game against Serbia 370 (photo credit: Israel Basketball Association)
GUARD GAL MEKEL in game against Serbia 370
(photo credit: Israel Basketball Association)
Israel hosts Serbia at Nokia Arena on Tuesday night in the first of two games in 48 hours that will make or break the national team’s hopes of qualifying for EuroBasket 2013.
The blue-and-white has taken part in the last 10 European Championships, not missing the tournament since 1991, but its streak is in real jeopardy after beginning the campaign with two consecutive defeats to Montenegro and Estonia.
Israel has since rebounded with road wins over the weak Iceland and Slovakia, but its true test arrives this week against the two strongest teams in Group A.
The group favorite Serbia currently trails Montenegro in the standings with a 3-1 record, with its only defeat coming to the Montenegrins (5-0) after a mid-court buzzer-beater.
The top two teams from the six qualifying groups and the four best third-placed teams will make up the 16 sides who will join Spain, France, Russia, FYR of Macedonia, Lithuania, Greece, Great Britain and hosts Slovenia in EuroBasket 2013.
With a road game in Serbia still to come, it seems that only a meltdown by the current group leaders will give Israel any chance of snatching a place in the top two.
It is still too early to say what record Israel would require to be among the four best third place finishers, especially with the blue-and-white’s results against the team in sixth and last place in Group A to be dropped in the calculation as all the other groups include just five teams.
However, five wins from the campaign’s remaining six games should be enough to book Israel’s place in the European Championships yet again, meaning coach Arik Shivek’s men need to triumph twice this week or win in Serbia.
“Serbia and Montenegro are at a different level than Iceland and Slovakia and we will have to be fully prepared,” said forward Lior Eliyahu, who is the team’s second highest scorer (14.3 ppg) in the campaign.
“We will need a full Nokia to push us this week and that is not a cliche. We need five wins from the next six games and this is going to be a very difficult mission.”
Israel and Serbia met at the European Championships last year, with the national team losing 89-80 after giving Dusan Ivkovic’s team a run for its money until the final minutes.
As always, the Serbs boast an enviably deep and balanced roster, which includes the likes of former NBA center Nenad Krstic, guard Milos Teodosic and former Maccabi Tel Aviv forward Milan Macvan.
“The next few games are decisive for us,” said Omri Casspi, who leads Israel in points (16.5 ppg) and rebounds (6.8 rpg).
“We are returning to Nokia to play in front of our fans and we will need them.”