Two of the last four clubs to win the EuroLeague go head-to-head in Istanbul.
Fenerbahce, Real Madrid meet in modern EuroLeague classic
When discussing the recent history of the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague, Fenerbahce Beko Istanbul (5-5) and Real Madrid (10-0) immediately come to mind. On Thursday evening at 18:45 CET, the 2016-17 EuroLeague champion hosts the 11-time winner and reigning titleholder at Ulker Sports and Event Hall in Round 11 of the 2023-24 regular season.
A growing rivalry
Over the last few years, there is no denying that Real and Fenerbahce have been two of the EuroLeague’s most dangerous teams, with the first page of this rivalry coming the 2015 EuroLeague Semifinals. On that occasion, the Turkish side reached the Final Four for the first time in its history, but the Spanish giant went on to end its 20-year wait to lift the EuroLeague title. One year later, Fenerbahce swept Los Blancos in the 2016 EuroLeague Playoffs, before also beating Real in the 2017 semifinals.
Both sides took their rivalry to another level in 2018, when Real and Fenerbahce faced each other in the 2018 championship game. Real edged Fenerbahce 85-80 in Belgrade, Serbia, behind 17 points from Fabien Causeur and 15 from 2018 Final Four MVP Luka Doncic. Real also downed Fenerbahce in the 2019 third-place game, 75-94. Facu Campazzo dished 15 assists that night to set a new Final Four record.
Big towers collide
The good news for Fenerbahce is that head coach Dimitris Itoudis has most of his players available for the first time in a while, as forward Metecan Birsen is the only guaranteed absentee. Dyshawn Pierre and Tarik Biberovic, who have both missed time lately, have rejoined their team's practices and may see playing time against Real.
Thursday night’s game gives us the chance to see two of the tallest players in the competition, Fenerbahce's Georgios Papagiannis and Real's Walter Tavares, go up against each other. Papagiannis and Tavares are very different players, which adds more interest to his matchup. Papagiannis has shown this season that can pull the trigger from downtown with great effectiveness, hitting 10-of-15 three-pointers (66.7%). He is also a good pick-and-roll player and an elite shot blocker who, just like Tavares, has led the league in this category in the past.
Tavares, meanwhile, is a three-time All-EuroLeague First Team selection and three-time EuroLeague Best Defender. His ability to block shots is legendary and Papagiannis and Sertac Sanli’s ability to bring him and Vincent Poirier out of the paint could be the biggest key to this game. Fortunately for Coach Itoudis, Sanli has plenty of experience playing against Tavares due to his two seasons with FC Barcelona.
Last season, Tavares solved his potential mismatch against Papagiannis really well, leading Real to home and away victories against Panathinaikos AKTOR Athens while averaging 10.0 points, 7.5 rebounds, 2.0 blocks and a PIR of 18.5. Papagiannis was limited to 7.0 points on 4-of-15 two-point shooting, 5.5 rebounds, no blocks and a PIR of 8.0.
Campazzo keeps finding everyone
Real is on track to beat the EuroLeague’s assists record. After all, the Spanish side is averaging 23.6 assists per game, far more than any other team in EuroLeague history. Los Blancos hold the previous record, too, set at 21.5 in the 2014-15 campaign. As for total numbers, Olympiacos Piraeus dished 862 assists last season, which is more than any team ever.
Playmaker Facu Campazzo is at the center of it all. Right in the prime of his career, Campazzo has dished at least 5 assists in each and every EuroLeague game this season. He is averaging 8.4 dimes in 10 games, something that only all-time assists leader and current Fenerbahce playmaker Nick Calathes managed to better, doing so in the 2018-19 (8.7 apg.) and the 2019-20 campaigns (9.1 apg.). Calathes holds the single-season record at 286 assists, and Campazzo may go past that come the end of the season.
In Round 9 against ALBA Berlin, Campazzo and Sergio Rodriguez became the first teammates to get 10 assists or more in the same game. Los Blancos also set this season's best assists mark as a team, 32, in that game.
Keys to the game
So, how do you stop a team that is undefeated and seemingly getting better with each game? Well, Fenerbahce has to do a number of things right and, of course, rely on its outstanding crowd to offer a helping hand.
Real leads the 2023-24 EuroLeague in several categories, one of which is defensive rebounds (27.3 drpg.). Fenerbahce needs to therefore power the offensive glass and has the right players to do so in Johnathan Motley, Papagiannis and Nigel Hayes-Davis.
Fenerbahce takes more three-point shots at home (30.8 per game) than any other team in the competition, so relying on its best shooters like Scottie Wilbekin, Tyler Dorsey and Hayes-Davis will be crucial. However, Real takes far more three-point shots on the road (31.8) than in the Spanish capital (26.2), which Coach Itoudis should also take into account when preparing Fenerbahce’s game plan. Luckily for the Greek tactician, Calathes and Yam Madar are good on-ball defenders and can apply pressure on Campazzo and Rodriguez.
Make no doubt, a top-class showdown is in store in Istanbul between two of the best EuroLeague teams in the last decade. What's not to like?