By virtue of being runner-up in the Super League last year, Fenerbahçe earned the right to fight for a position in UEFA’s top European football extravaganza. The team, which also won the Ziraat Turkish Cup for the first time in over 30 years, is currently training hard in Austria. Fener’s first Champions League qualifying match is on Aug. 1 against FC Vaslui at home. The return leg in Romania is on Aug. 8.
Fenerbahçe is hopeful about the competition, though they have yet to prove themselves able. “We want to field the ideal 11 against Vaslui. We don’t differentiate between easy and difficult opponents. Every opponent, every match is hard,” said trainer İsmail Kartal about the Champions League drawing.
Defender Bekir İrtegün explained what makes this team special, saying: “By shaking off our physical fatigue, developing our tactics a bit and achieving harmony we will get what we want in the first match. The first match is very important for us. We have to take it.”
Fenerbahçe plays its first Super League match on Aug. 18 against league newcomer Elaziğspor, which should be a good way to start the season off right. The following week will see a match against a more competitive Gaziantepspor.
“We have a quality team. Every player is valuable and everyone wants to play,” explained young defender Serdar Kesimal. “This year, the team’s most important quality is unity and team spirit,” he added.
The trouble is that the Yellow Canaries, as Fenerbahçe is called in football circles, need to stay sharp on several fronts. If they lose important players to other teams and do not collect a team that plays together seamlessly, they will struggle in the domestic league and UEFA competitions, not to mention the Turkish Cup title they are keen to defend.
Bringing in fresh blood
The Yellow Canaries are thus hard at work, trying to bring in new signings and work out kinks in warm-up matches. The team has already lured Dutch star forward Dirk Kuyt from his previous position in Liverpool, plus Valencia’s celebrated midfielder Mehmet Topal. The club is making motions to bring in more international names.
“There is a good chance that people we are waiting on will join the team,” says coach Aykut Kocaman. “At the same time, there will be friends left off of the team,” he adds ominously.
The team has also signed some young Turkish talent, including 18-year-old offensive midfielder Salih Uçan, from Bucaspor and 22-year-old Hasan Ali Kaldırım from Kayserispor. They also added Beşiktaş’s experienced defender Egemen Korkmaz to the lineup.
“We have a lot to learn from our brothers [on the team],” Salih said, referring to himself and his good friend Recep Niyaz, who played on Fenerbahçe’s youth team. “We are going to try to become some of the unchanging names of the starting 11,” he determined.
Wallowing in warm-ups
Despite the preparations, Fenerbahçe has apparently not yet stumbled upon a winning formula. On July 18, the Canaries drew 1-1 with Hungary’s MTK Budapest. Kocaman fielded newcomers Hasan Ali, Kuyt, Mehmet Topal and, eventually, Salih that day.
The second warm-up match was against English Premier League side Newcastle United, which also ended with a 1-1 draw. Kocaman again fielded newcomers Kuyt, Topal and Hasan Ali.
“We may have made mistakes during the match, but this is part of the warm-up period. We need to see where we make these mistakes during these kinds of matches and fix them,” Christian Baroni explained following the match, highlighting his lack of concern about the team.
“If we look at the match in general, we were the better team against the English side,” Kuyt claimed about the Newcastle encounter. But the fact of the matter is that, without goals, playing well does not get one into the Champions League or defend the Cup.
The Canaries then went on play Dinamo Tbilisi on July 23. Yet again they were unable to pull off anything but a draw. Despite another slight change in the lineup, this time the match ended 0-0.
“One must not look too much at the results,” a confident Kocaman reiterated after drawing with the Georgian side. “But looking at it from another angle, it appears that the team is more balanced than last year. There is a big possibility that this will be reflected in the Vaslui matches,” he added hopefully.
Also discussing the matches, Niyaz explains the team’s inability to win. “We are playing good football; it’s just that we are not putting our opportunities to good use. By using them in the Vaslui matches, we will get through to the Champions League,” he claimed.
Perhaps there really is no reason to be concerned about the team’s ability to win. Perhaps the new players will soon be in perfect form and harmony with the rest of the team. However, the real trick, as Kocaman acknowledges, is to keep it up on all fronts. “Our goal is to try to create the 11 that will on one hand stay in the Champions League group and on the other hand play together well for a long time in the league,” he said.