By Yarone Arbel
Every synonym to "war" would perfectly fit the upcoming match between Israel and the F.Y.R of Macedonia today in Group A in Poznan.
Right after the draw both teams marked in their calendar the second day of the group in their head-to-head match knowing it most probably be a winner-takes-all battle. Both sides see a win over the groups' favorites - Greece and Croatia - a bonus. The real battle is for third place and the path there goes through this game.
F.Y.R of Macedonia still search for their first ever EuroBasket win, but the closest they ever got was against Israel. Ten years ago in the exact same situation Israel edged by a single bucket to prevail and climb higher in the competition.
While the team of Jovica Arsic were out of their contest with Greece early, Israel played the second game and was in it until the buzzer. If Fatigue plays a role then Israel is in trouble.
Only six players scored for Israel yesterday and in order to avoid the fatigue Coach Zvi Sherf will need more contribution from his bench. After Yotam Halperin started the competition with five points on a terrible one out of six from the field, he'll need to step up today in the most important game of the competition for Israel.
F.Y.R of Macedonia was forced out of the paint against Greece and finished the game with only five three-pointers on 19.2% shooting. Such numbers won't be enough today, although against a much thinner front line of Israel the bigs of Arsic should have a bigger say in the game.
It's only the second day of the championship but for these two groups it's a matter of survival. In these kind of games it's not always about the level and skills, but mostly about the heart and will. Their history show we can expect a close hard-nosed battle from tip off to the finish line, and as basketball fans we can't ask for anything more.
One game. No margin for error. It's time to bring it on.
Head-to-head: The last time these two tigers met was in the Additional Qualifying Round of EuroBasket 2007, when Israel won 92-87 and jumped to the big stage, yet the first encounter is a bit more interesting. In 1999, exactly ten years ago, Israel was drawn into the same Preliminary Round group with F.Y.R of Macedonia in EuroBasket and it came down to a win-or-die game on the last day of the group. Oded Kattash scored with the buzzer to secure Israel's 64-62 win and open an unsettled account for the Skopje gang.
Last time out: Israel spent a lot of energy on the court yesterday in hope to shock Croatia but eventually lost 86-79, while F.Y.R. of Macedonia was knocked out by Greece 86-54 in a one-sided game.
Stats: Despite the paint was locked for at least one half for the players of Jovica Antic he earned 38 points of the team total of 54 by the front line. Todor Gecevski, Pero Antic, Jeremiah Massey and Predrag Samardziski were the main contributors for the team coming from Skopje. Israel as well relied on the front court as Lior Eliyahu, Ido Kozikaro and Yaniv Green collected 48 points of 79. Which back court will step up today? Which front court will re-create this success? The answers will decide the winner.
Key Match-Up: New school vs. old school. Uprising star vs. a veteran in his last games of his career. Energy vs. experience. The match up between Israel's Gal Mekel and F.Y.R. of Macedonia's Vrbica Stefanov could be the decisive one of the day. The 21-year-old Mekel enjoyed a great debut in EuroBasket with 16 points and three assists against the very talented Croatian back court. Stefanov had a tough time against the aggressive Greek defense to finish with only three points with one out of ten from the field. Stefanov will have to better his game if he wants his team to register their first EuroBasket win, but the talented Mekel would want to show he can produce not only good performance but also stability.
X-Factor: Jeremiah Tal Burstein is the one who makes the small things go for his team. The Israeli guard/forward has been a member of the national team for many years now, and is responsible for the last time they reached the Quarter-Finals, by hitting the winning shot in the Qualifying Round in 2003. After several years out of action due to injuries this is his stage to show he's back among the bigs. He had a good start against Croatia and wrote 10 points with three rebounds, but today is the big game, and those little things that win games - Burstein's trademark in his prime, will be needed to send Israel to the next round.
Sounding-Off: "Yesterday's game won't have any effect on us. We played bad, but that's behind us. We just need to get out there and play our game, and not let the past bother us," Jeremiah Massey talks about his team's key game today against Israel.