Basketball - Euroleague

Barça basketball returns to the European elite (79-53)

Defence and teamwork suffocate Zenit and the Blaugrana team will once again play in a Euroleague final four

Àlex Gozalbo
3 min
Barça's celebration

BarcelonaBarça did not fall asleep against Zenit St. Petersburg (79-53) and, seven seasons later, will once again play in the Euroleague Final Four. The blaugranas learned to defuse a Russian rival that wanted to emulate Jugoplastika and become part of the recurring nightmares of the culé imaginary. The Catalan side sweated to earn their ticket to the finals in Cologne, where they will face an AX Armani Exchange Milan side that eliminated Bayern Munich (92-89). Real Madrid will watch it all on television.

"We played a very physical game and we played good defence. The play-offs are always difficult, but a club like Barça has to be in the final four more often and that's what we're trying to do", said Sarunas Jasikevicius. Barça's defence was key and their opponents could only score 53 points. "It was the key", said Nick Calathes, who had 12 points and five assists on a night when the team's collective work shone brighter than any personal performance. The team overcame a lacklustre performance from Nikola Mirotic, who could only score seven points. "We made a great effort. We understood that every game was a final and we finished off the good work in the second half to win. Today is a big step for me. I hope I can help the team like I did today", said Pau Gasol, who had 7 points, 4 blocks and 3 rebounds.

Jasikevicius ruled out Léo Westermann, Sergi Martínez, and Artem Pustovyi to play a fifth game that was played without audience in the stands of the Palau Blaugrana. Even so, the Dracs 1991, one of the culé animation groups, approached the pavilion to give encouragement to a team that has lived through the last days with uneasiness.

Barça had a good first half. The blaugranas altered their usual rotations to better balance their fives on the court. They also tried to accentuate transition situations to prevent Zenit's defence from having time to get organised. Outside shot selection also improved and Xavi Pascual's different defensive strategies were not as effective as on other days. The Gavà coach again alternated individual assignments with zone and mixed defences in a game of great tactical baggage. Five consecutive points from Leandro Bolmaro enlivened the game and it was then that the maximum local difference of the first half arrived (36-20). The Russian rival struggled to keep up with Barça's scoring pace during the first 20 minutes, which ended with a 13-point difference (43-30).

Balanced and organised, Barça disguised their shortcomings better than in previous games and, at the same time, accentuated the weaknesses of a Zenit side that felt the wear and tear of a physically demanding tie. "During the first half we didn't control the pace of the game", admitted Pascual.

The second half started with a setback for Barça, as both Davies and Mirotic committed their third personal foul and this disrupted Jasikevicius' rotations. Calathes took on the responsibility of leading the way for the blaugranas in a stretch of the game in which the lead grew to 23 points (57-34). Far from relaxing, the Catalan side continued to press the accelerator until they suffocated their opponents, who ended up exhausted. Zenit could only score 23 points during a second half in which the home side's lead continued to grow and grow.

The last precedent was in 2014

The last time Barça played in the Final Four was in 2014, when they were coached by Xavi Pascual. The Catalan side suffered a painful defeat in the semi-finals against Real Madrid (62-100). Joan Carles Navarro and Àlex Abrines lived through the disappointment from the court. One season later, in 2014-15, Olympiacos were the team to beat in the quarter-finals with the court factor against them (1-3). In 2015-16, still with the coach from Gavà, the opponent that left Barça without a Final Four was Lokomotiv Kuban (2-3). The next disappointments came under Georgios Bartzokas and Svetislav Pesic, who took over from Sito Alonso on the bench. In both the 2016-17 and 2017-18 seasons, the team was out of the title race after failing to finish the regular season in the top eight. When they returned to the quarter-finals in the 2018-19 campaign, the Catalan side failed to overcome Anadolu Efes (3-2). Last year's competition was suspended due to the coronavirus when they were in third place.

The 2020-21 season has not been an easy one, as Barça have been forced to reinvent themselves with the departure of Thomas Heurtel and the arrival of Léo Westermann and Pau Gasol. In addition, the azulgrana team has suffered coronavirus positives and major injuries during a campaign in which, in addition, Nikola Mirotic was unavailable for a few weeks due to a serious personal hardship.