Israel visits Italy in Bari in its EuroBasket 2011 qualifying opener tonight in a game Omri Casspi believes could be nothing short of crucial to the national team’s hopes of reaching a 10th straight European Championship.The blue-and-white will play eight qualifiers over the next month, facing Italy, Latvia, Finland and Montenegro both home and away. Casspi, however, feels the team can already take a massive step towards next year’s championships in Lithuania with a victory on Monday.“We are facing a critical game and it is important to us all to open the campaign on the right foot,” the Sacramento Kings forward said. “We have been drawn into a very difficult group and the first team to win on the road will be the favorite and should eventually advance.”The winners of the three qualifying groups and the two best second place teams will qualify for the EuroBasket tournament automatically, with the six best remaining sides to compete in the additional qualifying round next summer of which the winner will earn the final spot to the European Championships.Israel, however, will be desperate to avoid the nerve-wrecking experience of the additional qualifying tournament and coach Arik Shivek knows what needs to be done to claim a key road win in Bari.“I believe we need to win games through defense,” Shivek said. “As soon as your defense is better it helps your offense as well.“The Italians will be under huge pressure and I hope we can claim a win because it would give us a significant advantage for the rest of the campaign.” Italy, a traditional powerhouse in European basketball, has struggled desperately in recent years, hitting rock-bottom last summer when it failed to qualify for the 2009 EuroBasket tournament.Coach Simone Pianigiani, who has guided Siena to four straight Italian championships, took charge following last year’s failure and is determined to guide the team back to its former glory.“In my national team are guys that have fire inside,” Pianigiani said. “We will work together to achieve the success we want.“We have a group of young guys who have so much enthusiasm and great motivation. I am convinced that we will send positive values to people.“We cannot make promises, but pledge that we’ll give our best in order to achieve significant results as quickly as possible.”Pianigiani has expressed his concern of having to play Israel in the first qualifier, but is confident Italy can return to the European Championships after missing out on the event for the first time in 48 years last summer.“We are in a very difficult group, but we’ll be attentive to details because these are what make the difference,” he added. “We have a dream, but we can realize it only through work, commitment and sacrifice.”Italy’s deep and balanced roster is led by two NBA players, Andrea Bargnani and Marco Belinelli. Bargnani, the No. 1 draft pick in 2006, has shown consistent improvement in his four seasons as a Toronto Raptors player, averaging 17.2 points and 6.2 rebounds for the team last season.The 2.13-meter 24-year-old will be a particular nuisance for the heightdeprived Israel roster, which, besides the rarely used Robert Rothbart, has no player taller than 2.07m.Belinelli joined Bargnani in Toronto last season, averaging 7.1 points per game, and will be especially dangerous due to his ability to score from any range.“We are facing a very tough team, especially when playing in front of its home fans,” Casspi said. “Bargnani is very close to becoming an NBA superstar and we will certainly have to focus on him.Belinelli is also a very good player and we will need to focus on him, as well as on the rest of their excellent players.”Israel enters its campaign with its most promising roster in recent years.Yotam Halperin will lead from the backcourt and Yaniv Green will be especially important under the baskets due to the team’s lack of centers. However, the key to success will be the play of the side’s forwards.With Casspi, Lior Eliyahu, David Bluthenthal, Guy Pnini and Elishay Kadir all at his disposal, Shivek is planning on using three or even four forwards at certain stages of the games.Shivek’s strategy seemed to work in the warm-up encounters and Halperin is optimistic the team will continue to improve with every qualifier.“We are facing one of the tougher games in the campaign, but we have prepared well and we are ready,” Halperin said. “We are talented on the offensive end, but I’m worried about our defense. We will have to give a little extra to win games like this. The encounter will not be decided on our offense, but on all the small things.