All eyes tonight in the Greek Championship will be focused on OAKA. After a big winning streak in Greece and Europe, AEK Athens is facing Panathinaikos OPAP, who despite being unbeaten in the league, have already seen three opponents conquer their fortress in the Euroleague (Zalgiris, Fenerbahce, Armani Milano).

With Giorgos Vovoras on the bench for another game, Panathinaikos will play without the injured Keith Langford and Ioannis Papapetrou. At the same time, however, the problems are not absent from AEK, who will be without Vassilis Xanthopoulos and Vassilis Kavvadas, while the participation of Dusan Sakota will be judged at the last moment.

Luca Banchi will sit on the Queen’s bench in the first Athenian Derby of the season and clearly wants his team to repeat the performance and result of the pre-season, when AEK beat PAO and dominated the tournament in Cyprus.

The coach from Grosseto spoke to TalkBasket.net before the present campaign took off, about this year’s AEK, the contract of Jonas Masuiles, who will face his ex- team, and many more things. The most interesting part, however, is that the Italian coach predicted in his own way the course of the two eternal rivals in Europe and Greece.

Q: AEK is being tarnished by injuries. What’s the situation?

Until now I’m quite satisfied, but I’m very disappointed with the injuries that have slowed down my work. We are talking about fractures, as in the case of Xanthopoulos. We do not know when he will return and when he does, he will be limited perhaps by having to play with a mask that takes away part of his vision and breathing. It is never pleasant. Kavvadas, Rathan-Mayes and Sant-Roos, who contribute in their own unique way, have missed many games and this limits the growth of the team.

Q: How is this season for you?

A: It is definitely challenging. I hope it is also as long as possible. The team has so many youngsters and rookies that they will have to adapt very quickly to what is needed in European basketball and Greek basketball, in order to be successful. There is also a core of Greek players who will help me to direct the team in the right way. So, I like the idea that this team was built mainly by keeping and preserving a group of players of last season, certainly putting in some talented ones that can help us to raise the level of performance, and then some young athletes who must prove that they’ve got the skills to deserve a place on the team. Maybe their talent pushes us to achieve results that nobody expects.

Q: How easy or difficult was it to attract players like Sant-Roos or Maciulis to AEK?

A: You know, the fact that last year AEK had achieved certain results certainly helped. Another decisive aspect was that we had the patience to wait for the market to bring certain players to our direction because we do not have the economic potential – and we should not be ashamed to admit it – to attract players of this type in the first few months of the market. We have simply waited for the best possible opportunity and when their expectations and our proposals crossed ways, we had a deal.

Q: Is it true that Maciulis has a Euroleague buy-out clause in his contract?

A: All I see is a player who is entirely available for a BCL team. This is the only thing I know. To me, the player has been proposed and presented as one of our players for the whole season. Then, if there should be any decisions concerning his stay, namely if he does not like it here or we don’t like to keep him, these are things that you should ask the management of the team. Maciulis was proposed and presented as an AEK player for the whole season.

Q: What’s his role on this team?

A: I see the attitude he is having, how he is working with the team, not only on the court, but also in the locker room, trying to share his experience to help me prepare this team before every game. Furthermore, he’s very focused and he has high expectations of AEK and this season. These players possess a winning mentality. They don’t accept the idea that even at a lower level you can play with a different attitude instead of doing what you need to win.

Q: How credible are the results obtained by AEK in the pre-season against Euroleague opponents, such as Khimki, Panathinaikos or Maccabi?

A: They are not credible because they were obtained at a particular moment of the respective preparation and with a lot of determining factors playing their role. Panathinaikos without six players, we without four, Khimki without four, Maccabi without five. Maybe you have also seen a different level of motivation as it often happens when a great team meets a less arrogant team and sometimes the former has the tendency to underestimate a little bit certain games and opponents. For us, that tournament had a different value compared to other teams.

However, the most promising thing was that every phase of our pre-season had a meaning. We had the right attitude to try to take something out of every experience, including when we lost with 35 points to Red Star. We had reached the limit of our energy but every step served us to make this team better. Beyond having won the three games, I was pleased to see the players very attentive to what we had to do in order to make the tournament interesting and useful.

Q: As far as domestic competitions are concerned, in one of your interviews you said that Panathinaikos remains the favourite to win the Greek League. Is it so?

A: In my opinion, yes. Because they start from a winning tradition. They managed to keep the same technical staff and a good part of the players from last season. The addition of players like Papapetrou consolidates even more their Greek core, Calathes -and, perhaps, Spanoulis- is the player to date that has the biggest impact on the team at every level, both in Greece and in Europe.

I see Olympiacos as an entity much more oriented and projected to the European stage, but in Greece I think it is still difficult to scratch the supremacy of Panathinaikos. In short, it is a question of vocation. It seems to me that Panathinaikos has this “Greek” vocation. So, it will not be easy for the other teams to make a move, even for a great one like Olympiacos. All these years, we see a Panathinaikos team that leaves very little to the opponent.

Q: And what about AEK?

A: We will try to build our own style. We hope to have a good identity as a team and that our fans know how to appreciate these players. Then, what matters is the level of performance and the quality of the game, as well as our attitude on the court.