Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Fenerbahce's Golden Opportunity

"It wasn't supposed to be like this." That could echo the sentiments shared by many Fenerbahce fans less than ten weeks into the new season. Most fans expected that Fener would be the reigning Turkcell Super Lig champions, sporting the Turkish flag on their shirts this season. By this point, we'd be well into the UEFA Champions League playing the best teams in Europe. But it was not meant to be. Fenerbahce fell apart at the last minute last season, handing the championship to Galatasaray. Champions League qualifying didn't go as planned, and here we are in the "runner-up" UEFA Cup. Christoph Daum is out, Zico is in. Team cancer Nicolas Anelka is gone. Marcio Nobre is gone. Mateja Kezman, Diego Lugano, Deivid de Souza, and Edu Dracena are in.

The young season has been full of ups and downs already. A season-opening 6-0 win over Kayseri Erciyesspor fueled the hopes of a renewed side. A 1-0 loss to Bursaspor seven weeks later tempered them. A disappointment in Champions League qualifying to Dynamo Kiev nearly killed them. But something happened along the way. Zico, the much-maligned Brazilian manager, forgot that he was maybe coaching for his job and re-arranged his line-up to coach to win. Against Newcastle United in the UEFA Cup, Zico moved Mateja Kezman up as the lone striker. He gave more playing time to Onder Turaci and Mehmet Yozgatli. He saw substantial improvement in Edu Dracena and Diego Lugano. Zico also realized that Tuncay Sanli might be not only the best Turkish player in the Super Lig, but one of the best players overall in the Super Lig. The re-arranging worked. Fenerbahce committed a vital mistake late in the game when Rustu Recber couldn't hang on to the ball on a save and Newcastle put the ball in the back of the net. Fenerbahce lost 1-0. But this didn't feel like a loss. After weeks of under-performing, Fenerbahce got something back: their confidence. They knew they could beat the English side. They knew they should have beaten the English side. Most importantly, they realized this was just the first game; they aren't eliminated yet. And they realized that their momentum would be ruined if they came back to Kadikoy and under-performed against a good Kayserispor side.

On Sunday, Fenerbahce returned to the Turkcell Super Lig against Kayserispor. The momentum they brought home from England grew larger. Mehmet Yozgatli played like a star, putting Fener up 1-0. Mateja Kezman played like the striker Chelsea went after, putting Fener up 2-0. Fener gave up a goal cutting the lead in half, but that is where one can separate good teams from average teams. Average teams wilt and panic. Good teams put the game away. In came Alex de Souza, his wife giving birth to their second child over the weekend. Gol - 3-1 Fenerbahce. Gol - 4-1 Fenerbahce. This team meant business.

Along the way, there have been other surprises in the Super Lig. Besiktas, who many picked to win the league, sits in third. Galatasaray, the defending champion, can't even see first place from their spot. And Vestel Manisaspor, a team that no sane person picked, is sitting in first place......undefeated. All the while, Fener has been hanging out in second place, waiting for their chance. Finally, Vestel lost their first game last weekend, right before Fener's 4-1 victory. Suddenly the first place spot is only three points away, and look who is on the schedule this weekend - Vestel Manisaspor.

The season hasn't gone as anyone planned so far, but Fener has a golden opportunity this weekend. Knock off Vestel Manisaspor, in their home stadium, and move into first place. It's a monumental task; a job that to succeed in, Fener needs a great striker. Mateja Kezman - check. Fener needs a great goalkeeper. Rustu Recber - check. Fener needs a strengthened defense. Diego Lugano and Edu Dracena - check. Most importantly, Fener needs the confidence of knowing they can succeed and reclaim the throne in the Turkcell Super Lig - double check.

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