Just like a Game of the Week clash between two of the biggest names of last year ended 2017, so we begin 2018 with a showdown between two of the teams whom history confirms as the most dominant after New Year's Day during almost every season going back 15 years.
Still, as FC Barcelona Lassa hosts CSKA Moscow on Thursday night, many would say that they are clubs of quite different fortunes at this moment. After all, Barcelona suffered through its worst Turkish Airlines EuroLeague losing streak of the century last month, just as CSKA again seized exclusive hold over first place, its customary position in the standings.
Additionally, Barcelona's many new recruits up and down the bench are actually doing worse record-wise than last season, when the wheels fell off completely and the team missed the playoffs for the first time in more than a decade. As that was happening, CSKA last season lengthened the second-longest string of Final Four appearances to six, two behind its own record of eight, established from 2003 through 2010.
Those 14 Final Fours in 15 years -- a feat that might never be matched -- attest to CSKA's dominance in every new year that comes along. But forgetting last season, Barcelona has been nearly as strong. In the old Top 16, Barcelona recorded a 28-0 home record from 2008 to 2015. Part of that remarkable run overlapped the 54-7 overall Top 16 record of Barcelona in the first five Top 16s of this decade.
Last season's lapse does not erase such a pedigree, of course, but at the same time the uphill climb that Barcelona faces now, halfway through this season, adds pressure to beat big teams like CSKA, especially at home. If they want to get back in the playoffs, Barça simply cannot afford almost any home losses from here to Round 30 of the regular season, as no less an expert than Navarro has said in the run-up to this game:
"Our being in the EuroLeague playoffs will necessarily mean that we have to win home games against teams like CSKA... We must win this game no matter what so we hope our fans come to support us."
The good news for tonight's home fans? That longest losing streak in club history ended last week right in CSKA's backyard. Led by old standbys Ante Tomic and Juan Carlos Navarro, Barcelona ran Khimki Moscow Region off its home floor with the kind of confidence that could precipitate a true turnaround.
Though not CSKA, CSKA is a playoff-level team of the precise type that Barcelona must eventually displace in the standings. More importantly, Barcelona looked more against Khimki like the team that had beat up on two other playoff-positioned teams, Panathinaikos Superfoods Athens and Olympiacos Piraeus, early in the season by an average of 24 points.
Both of those big wins came at home, where a third one over the league leader tonight would go a long way to restoring the idea, both inside and outside the locker room, that Barcelona has its mojo working again.
The rivalry between Barcelona and CSKA this century has reached all but the highest level, with each going through the other twice in semifinals to reach championship games. Barcelona turned both of those victories into EuroLeague titles in 2003 and 2010. CSKA did the same to Barcelona in 2006 for its first EuroLeague crown in 35 years.
Despite the 12-place gap between them in the standings now, these teams are not so far apart, performance-wise. Barcelona ranks first among EuroLeague teams in both assists and assist-to-turnover ratio, plus fifth in scoring and performance index rating, while also averaging more rebounds than CSKA. Defensively, they are practically even in points allowed. Remarkably, Barcelona has a better overall point difference this season (+27) than seven teams ahead of it in the standings and sits within 10 points of both third-placed Panathinaikos and second-placed Olympiacos.
In other words, there is a lot more than meets the eye in this Barcelona team, although its stumbles until now will require that all of its potential to be applied almost constantly going forward.
Only three victories now separate Barcelona from the eighth and final playoff spot, so you might be tempted to say that a loss to mighty CSKA is not imperative. But for a team that has been fragile for nearly a year and a half, losing at home now after showing such promise in Moscow a week ago will likely reintroduce the doubts that have kept Barcelona back until now.
Having won in Moscow last week, Barcelona needs to take it up a notch to beat CSKA, too, or risk the kind of yo-yo effect that has haunted its best ambitions for more than a year.