By Jared Grellet
|Mikhail Kulagin will have to be in top form for Russia, facing the strong Spanish backcourt|
With the first and second rounds out of the way, the contenders have been sorted from the pretenders and it is time for the real business to begin at the Samsung U18 European Championship.
Leaving it up until the last possible moment to confirm their place in the final eight, Russia (4-2) have their work cut out for against a classy Spanish (5-1) outfit. The Russian backcourt combination of Mikhail Kulagin and Serdar Annaev should have the measure of their Spanish counterparts, Alberto Diaz and Josep Perez but where they will struggle is shutting down the Spaniards inside. This is where Spain can be expected to dominate through their big-man combo of Guillermo Hernangomez and Ilimane Diop Gaye who have both looked strong going to the hoop, an area where Russia have struggled to defend.
Serbia (4-2) will be happy with their quarter-final match up against Bulgaria (3-3) and simply relieved to have avoided Croatia. However, they can not let this turn into complacency against a Bulgarian team who have already exceeded their expectations just by avoiding elimination from Division A. Since then they been playing with a nothing-to-lose attitude. The ploy has worked to date and their confidence will be high following their win over Croatia in their final Group F game, regardless of the fact that Croatia rested key players. Bulgaria have developed a habit of building big leads early before narrowly avoiding defeat at the death. If they again give up a big lead against Serbia, they can not expect the Serbs to be so forgiving in the last quarter.
The battle of the co-hosts, Lithuania (6-0) and Latvia (4-2) offers a tantalising prospect in what could
|Davis Geks and Latvia are facing nieghbours Lithuania, who can count on home-crowd support in Vilnius|
turn out to be the closest fought of the quarter-finals. On paper, Lithuania should be hands on favourites to win this one but as with any Lithuania-Latvia clash, the latter will be relishing the underdog tag. The game brings together two teams to arrive at the quarter-finals by best-exemplifying a team game. Both teams have benches that run deep with a number of players who can be called upon by either trainer, meaning that the performance of the benches may well work out to be the key factor as to which team triumphs.
Going into the quarter-finals, nobody envies the position that Italy (3-3) are in right now. Jubilation at reaching the quarter-finals on Wednesday, may just have soon turned into concern for the Azzurrini upon realisation that they are now taking on the hottest team at the tournament to date, Croatia. If there was any ever doubt over the importance of Dario Saric and Mislav Brzoja to Croatia's hopes, it was quickly put to rest on Wednesday when Croatia lost their only game of the tournament with the pair looking on from the bench, knowing their number one seeding going into the next round was already secure. On paper, Italy's game plan looks simple: shut down Saric and Brzoja and they will already be 90% of the way towards securing victory. However, reality presents a different story and that task is much easier said than done.