Sometimes it only takes one game to turn around a season. And as it prepares to welcome sole standings leader AX Armani Exchange Milan on Friday night, Fenerbahce Beko Istanbul is hoping that transformation happened in last week’s trip to CSKA Moscow.
The Turkish giant headed to Moscow in a sorry state, having suffered three consecutive heart-breakingly narrow defeats to drop to a 2-5 record. After those losses – by one point against Real Madrid, two points against FC Barcelona and two points again at Olympiacos Piraeus – it would have been very easy for Sasa Djordjevic´s men to feel sorry for themselves, let their heads drop and start to worry that their hopes of enjoying a successful season were already dying out.
Instead, they headed into the Russian capital with the necessary resolve, confidence and collective quality to deservedly earn an extremely impressive road win, 82-91, leading nearly all the way to gain a victory which reminded the continent of this team´s talents.
And those talents are in no short supply: Nando De Colo and Jan Vesely present very strong cases for respectively being the best guard and the best center in the competition over the last decade; Achille Polonara was one of the biggest breakout stars of last season; Marko Guduric is among the most skilled and versatile swingmen to be found anywhere on the continent; Devin Booker is a well-proven scorer and rebounder, and Dyshawn Pierre can always relied upon to do, well, quite a bit of everything.
This is a roster built for success, and last week’s win in Moscow made it clear that Fenerbahce also possesses the right stuff mentally, with the resilience to go through tough losses and produce a strong response in a difficult environment.
Now, Fenerbahce’s next chance to continue climbing the standings comes against a highly appropriate opponent: a Milan team which is looking to claim for itself the Turkish team’s place among the continent’s elite.
In fact, a bizarrely close set of parallels can be drawn between the situations of Fenerbahce post-2013 and Milan post-2019. Both, for starters, were highly ambitious, desperate to satisfy a hungry fanbase and claim continental glories that, at the time, had long remained frustratingly out of reach.
To achieve those lofty ambitions, both clubs recognised the need for a stellar coach who boasted title-winning credentials: Fenerbahce recruited Zeljko Obradovic, and six years later Milan placed its faith in Ettore Messina. Fenerbahce built its backcourt on the talents of two-time former champion Kostas Sloukas, and Milan did the same with two-time former champion Sergio Rodriguez. Fenerbahce’s need for a dominant big man was satisfied with the recruitment of Jan Vesely, before Milan went right out and snared this century’s most decorated EuroLeague player, Kyle Hines. And just to make the comparison ridiculous, Fenerbahce strengthened the forward positions by grabbing Nicolo Melli and Gigi Datome, while Milan strengthened the forward positions by grabbing…Nicolo Melli and Gigi Datome.
Milan, in short, is now trying to enjoy the transformation in fortunes that Fenerbahce had happily experienced over the previous few years, shedding the history of a less than astounding recent past to become consistent challengers for the continent’s biggest prize. And the likenesses do not end there. Far from it.
For Fenerbahce, a certain degree of patience was required because it took a few years of sure but steady improvement to eventually reach the pinnacle. Obradovic’s first season in charge, 2013-14, ended with elimination in the Top 16, just one win short of a place in the playoffs. The next campaign saw progress with a place in the 2015 Final Four, but no glory on this occasion as the semi-final resulted in defeat against Spanish powerhouse Real Madrid.
So far, so similar. Eerily similar, in fact. Although Messina’s first campaign with Milan was ended early by the pandemic, Milan was sitting one win outside the playoffs positions when the action was halted. Then his second season, just like Obradovic’s at Fenerbahce, saw a big step forward and a long-awaited place in the Final Four, ending in the disappointment of a semi-final defeat against a Spanish powerhouse – only, in this case, Barcelona rather than Real.
By that reckoning – and this is where Milan fans will be hoping their team can skip a year in the development process – Messina’s men are due to reach this season’s title decider but then lose in an overtime thriller to the previous season’s fellow defeated semi-finalist CSKA Moscow at the Championship Game in Berlin’s Mercedes-Benz Arena (and if that really happens, all bets are off because we’re obviously living in a parallel universe), before finally attaining the title next season, at the end of their lauded coach’s fourth season in charge.
Fenerbahce, though, isn’t ready for that kind of copycat repeating of history. For the Turkish team and its devoted army of fans, the resemblance between themselves under Obradovic and Milan under Messina end right now. Fenerbahce will not simply roll over and allow the Italian team to usurp its previously-held position at the top table of European basketball, and last week’s muscle-flexing victory in Moscow shows there is still plenty of life left in this team.
We already know, of course, that there is plenty of life in Milan, which will be going all guns blazing with the aim of keeping its current position at the head of the standings. The absurdly strong similarities between its current trajectory and the rise enjoyed by Fenerbahce a few years ago are just fine for Messina and his players, who will be perfectly happy with the idea that future successes are written in the stars.
And so on Friday night, it’s not just a win that’s at stake. It could even be seen as a date with destiny.
Seen at: Euroleague.net