The first set of games in 2022 will take place on Thursday and Friday with Round 19 offering a tempting selection of clashes to mark the new year in style. Here’s your guide to the action that lies ahead.

Playoffs aspirants meet in Belgrade

Two teams hoping to spend the second half of the season shooting up the standings go head to head in the Serbian capital for Thursday’s opening tip-off, with Crvena Zvezda mts Belgrade (7-11) preparing to welcome Fenerbahce Beko Istanbul (7-10).

There are significant absences on both teams, as Fenerbahce makes the journey without injured superstars Nando De Colo and Jan Vesely, while Zvezda is set to be without former Fener star Nikola Kalinic after a positive COVID test. That will require other heroes to step forward for a pair of teams who have both shown flashes of playoffs potential without performing at their peak on a consistent basis.

Fenerbahce had hoped to find that consistency with a four-game win streak before suffering a narrow loss at LDLC ASVEL Villeurbanne in its last game of 2021. Zvezda has been on the receiving end of consecutive tough losses – 84-83 against Efes and then 76-80 after overtime against Zenit. On paper, these appear to be two well-matched teams, and the extent to which Fenerbahce can find different solutions to compensate for the loss of De Colo and Vesely could be key.

CSKA seeks to make a move

Perennial powerhouse CSKA Moscow certainly would not have expected to head into the new year as the most lowly-placed of the three Russian teams in the competition, but that is exactly the scenario faced by head coach Dimitris Itoudis and his players after a mixed first half of the season has left them with a 10-7 record in seventh place.

CSKA will hope to start making a charge towards the top of the standings with a mouth-watering home game against standings leader FC Barcelona (15-3) on Friday night. It is the first of five out of seven home games for CSKA to start the new year, and beating Barca could light a spark for the hosts.

This is one of several games which could be affected by the COVID-19 virus after Barca had an outbreak of cases over the weekend and saw its domestic league clash with Real Madrid postponed. If the game can go ahead, though, head coach Sarunas Jasikevicius will be eager to see an immediate response from his players after a heavy loss at Bitci Baskonia Vitoria-Gasteiz in the final game of 2021. Beating CSKA for a fifth straight time would be the ideal way for Barca to bounce back.

Maccabi aims to end losing streak vs. Baskonia

Speaking of the team that beat Barca by 19 to end the year, Baskonia (7-11) carries its first winning streak since October on the road to face tail-spinning Maccabi Playtika Tel Aviv, which has the same record as the visitors, but just six weeks ago stood in fourth place with the same seven wins. Since then, Maccabi has lost eight straight, making this home game to start 2022 loom large as a much-needed opportunity to stop the bleeding against a team it defeated by 19 on the road in November.

Maccabi’s defense during the downturn has given up 84.4 points per game as compared to 74.1 prior to it. Granted, six of its most recent losses were away from Menora Mivtachim Arena, where Maccabi plays nine of its last 16 games. But to get back in the playoffs hunt, it behooves the hosts to play for their lives on defense this Thursday to end a streak that is tied for the club’s worst in European competition since the 1992-93 season – almost 30 years.

Baskonia, meanwhile, has the big win over Barcelona and a solid 76-81 decision in its last road game, at FC Bayern Munich, for motivation. Off-season acquisitions Matt Costello and Wade Baldwin took turns dominating in those games, giving Baskonia the kind of inside-outside balance that winning teams cherish. With Rokas Giedraitis, Stephen Enoch and Simone Fontecchio also hitting for double figures against mighty Barca, the Baskonia frontcourt is going to have to be stopped if Maccabi wants to end its desperation this week.

Milan and Zenit in top-six showdown

The Russian team currently enjoying the best position in the standings is Zenit St Petersburg, which concluded an excellent 2021 by winning at Crvena Zvezda mts Belgrade in overtime last week to take a grip on fourth place with a 12-6 record. The hero of that victory was Billy Baron, whose 25 points against his former team were enough to secure the MVP of the Round award and a fourth straight victory for Zenit, which will now set its sights on Friday’s trip to AX Armani Exchange Milan (10-6) in a battle between direct rivals in the playoffs positions.

Milan has been out of action for a couple of weeks due to COVID cases and will look to quickly find its rhythm against one of the toughest defenses in the competition. Zenit has allowed just 71.9 points per game, exactly the same as Milan, giving these two teams the best points-against defenses after Real Madrid. But both are also more than capable of delivering offensive fireworks, especially from long-range with Baron joined by Jordan Loyd for Zenit while Devon Hall and Sergio Rodriguez let fly from deep for Milan.

Festive fight between Real and UNICS

The other Russian challenger – currently nestled between CSKA and Zenit – is last season’s EuroCup finalist UNICS Kazan, which has stepped up into the continent’s top-level competition in admirable fashion and currently sits in fifth place on 11-7. This week’s challenge is one of the toughest UNICS will face all season, with a trip to take on a second-placed Real Madrid (14-3) team which has won nine games out of nine at home. The Russian team has bitter memories of its last trip to Spain, having squandered a 20-point lead in the fourth quarter against Barcelona last month. But that was quickly forgotten by a morale-boosting victory over reigning champ Anadolu Efes Istanbul last week, sending another reminder that UNICS is for real.

Thursday’s game takes place on a special date for both sets of fans: January 6 is a national holiday in Spain to celebrate the arrival of the gift-bearing Three Kings, while the game also falls on the eve of Friday’s Christmas celebrations in Russia. But who will be celebrating at the end of this second- versus fifth-place showdown?

Seen at: