Xavi Pascual (Barcelona, 48 years old), celebrates 14 seasons in the Euroleague, a competition he won in 2010 with Barça, in which he directed Panathinaikos for three years and in which this season he has starred in one of the biggest surprises by qualifying with Zenit de San Peterbursgo for the quarterfinals. His rival now for the best of five games, this Wednesday the first (21.00, DAZN), is precisely Barcelona, his soul team, for which he left his job as a technical engineer in the Viladecans town hall, in which he triumphed after relieved – they told him provisionally – Dusko Ivanovic in February 2008, and that he had to leave, in tears, after being fired in 2016.
Question. Has your records as a coach changed a lot in a team like Zenit?
Answer. I decided to come to Saint Petersburg because it is a growing club, very new, very virgin, but with possibilities for the future. Also because it is a place where I can work without too much interference and with a certain comfort and decision-making capacity. It is a very modest club compared to the ones I had coached, also because it does not have its history, but it does intend to take steps forward in the medium term.
P. Last when the competition was canceled in 2020 due to the pandemic, they were not expected now in the quarterfinals.
R. We have done very well. The club made a small effort compared to last year’s budget and put together a new squad. It is the first time in history that we entered the playoff in the Euroleague and also the first that we finished first in the Russian regular league. We have competed above expectations, we have exceeded them.
P. What have been the keys?
R. A group with very good chemistry. Maybe we do not have big names or stars compared to others, but we function well and little by little we have settled what we want to do. Some players have taken steps forward, we have given them leadership, they have been growing and they are having a very good season. We suffered an outbreak of coronavirus that another team infected us. We were all at home for fifteen days. We had started beating Efes away and Barça at home, then that happened to us and we had to do a preseason in the middle of the season. It has been tough. He forced us to relocate seven games in the season. We have had three games practically every week. But we have tried to live from the challenge and not from the threat.
P. Does living from the challenge now also serve to face Barça?
R. Without a doubt, how are we to do it if not? We are what we are. Many players have never experienced it. We have to enjoy a playoff quarterfinals against an opponent who from our point of view is the best in the competition and from here we try to be competitive and, if we have any chance, to beat them, hit them and get it. That will be our mentality and it cannot be another. Somehow we have already done the most that we could do. Anything that comes along would be even more unexpected than what we have done so far.
P. But they beat Barça in Saint Petersburg (74-70) and at the Palau they were close (85-81).
R. No, that perception is not very real. The first game yes and it has a lot of merit because we caught the coronavirus and we had four casualties. We were in a very difficult situation and we took it out. But at the Palau, Barça was much superior. In the final stage we pulled on character and what we have, we always compete, but in reality we had no chance of winning. The Barça was very superior.
P. What are Barça’s strong points?
R. This Barça has practically no cracks in anything. Physically they are very good, bigger than us in practically all positions. He has an exorbitant talent, passing quality in all positions at the highest level of the Euroleague, decision-making ability from the outside, from the inside, a very good coach, defensively they can do everything, move in any register, be more aggressive, less aggressive, change in all situations, change only in some and they prepare the games very well. I said it at the beginning and I still think about it, he is the favorite for this Euroleague.
P. What do you think about the incorporation of Pau Gasol?
R. It involves closing the circle in a brutal way. I’m very happy for Barça and for him and I’m sure that day by day he will become more integrated and help his team more.
P. He knows Jasikevicius very well. What do you think of the style of play of your teams?
R. Saras is the coach who is called upon to dominate European basketball for years to come. It is very difficult to say who is the best coach in Europe and that kind of thing. People put labels very easily. But if we do a simile with cars: he is one of the best drivers with the best car. Their teams have a very good education in everything, very good offensive and defensive discipline, they prepare the games very well.