By Jeff Taylor
|There is no shortage of stars on the France roster, but perhaps how center Joakim Noah rates against the Russian frontcourt will be the most deciding factor|
Russia and France know what it's like to meet in big games at the EuroBasket because the two squared off four years ago in the Quarter-Finals in Madrid.
In that meeting, the French led by four points in the fourth quarter but couldn't pull away and after missing several free-throws in the final minute, Russia prevailed, 75-71.
The Russians went on to beat Lithuania in the next game and then Spain in the final to capture the gold medal.
Now with veteran forward Andrei Kirilenko back in the fold after a three-year absence, David Blatt's team looks as good as ever.
Kirilenko played like an all-star in Thursday's 10-point triumph over Serbia, finishing with 14 points, 11 rebounds, six assists, four steals and two blocks.
Blatt knows his players needs to turn their focus immediately to Friday.
"Victory is sweet especially when it comes against a great (Serbia) team," Blatt said.
"But we have little time to prepare as we play another game tomorrow (Friday) and we will not celebrate. We need to be ready.
"We've had a great run so far and our record speaks for itself."
Russia may no longer have point guard JR Holden, who hit the game-winning shot against Spain in the waning seconds of the EuroBasket 2007 title game, but they do have an emerging star in the backcourt in Aleksey Shved and a whole lot more.
"We got back two of our main players - Kirilenko and Viktor Khryapa - who didn't play in 2009," Blatt said. "And you saw tonight (Thursday) how important they are.
"But that is not the story. The story is the other players who matured and are now higher-level basketball players. We provided our players with the kind of teaching and culture it takes to build a successful national team."
French fans, meanwhile, are breathing a sigh of relief after their team overcame a smart and very determined Greece on Thursday.
France were just 25 of 56 (45%) from the floor but did hit five of 10 (50%) of their free-throws.
They also got a huge first-half performance from Nando de Colo, who poured in 12 points before the break.
Les Bleus will cause problems for Russia, and Blatt knows it.
"I saw France play a couple of times already," Blatt said.
"They are athletic in every position. They have two elements you look for - a great, great point guard (Tony Parker) and two players in the middle who can play with their back to the basket.
"They have very good defenders as well. I don't know how much more than this you need.
"It's going to be a very difficult game, just like any other game in this level of European basketball, but we'll be ready and we'll do fine."
The winner of the game will not only play for the gold medal, but also earn a direct ticket to next year's London Games.
VIDEO: CLAUDIO COLDEBELLA, SVETLANA ABROSIMOVA, ANDREI KIRILENKO AND BORIS DIAW PREVIEW THE SEMI-FINAL
Head-to-Head: Russia have won five of their eight meetings against France at the EuroBasket over the years, but Les Bleus beat them in their last meeting in Poland in 2009, 69-64.
Last Time Out: France won 64-56 over Greece and Russia beat Serbia, 77-67.
Key Match-Up: France center Joakim Noah v Russia pivot Timofey Mozgov
Key Stat: France sharpshooter Mickael Gelabale, who sprained an ankle in Group E action and then missed games against Lithuania and Spain, played just seven minutes against Greece.
X-Factor: Boris Diaw of France. After a strong start to the EuroBasket, Diaw has averaged just three points in the last four games and didn't score against Greece.
Sounding Off: "We have guaranteed a place in the pre-Olympic tournament for next year. It was our first goal, but we still have a chance to qualify directly if we win tomorrow (Friday)," says France coach Vincent Collet.