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Türkiye’s World Cup Qualification Faces a Spanish Hurdle

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Football this weekend turns from its domestic league scene to the international stage as countries again vie for coveted and limited spots in next year’s World Cup. Perhaps for clubs like Manchester United, without a point in their last two Premiership matches, the international break is like a godsend. And while all of England can refocus on the “Three Lions” and their quest to redeem their uncharacteristic absence from Euro 2008 and to name themselves among the 32 teams in South Africa, one other match in this week’s qualifiers is worthy of our attention.

Although the final at Euro 2008 was contested between Spain and Germany, many will remember how close Türkiye was from the final during their memorable semi-final against Germany. Injuries and suspensions placed a heavy toll on a depleted Turkish side and even gave us glance into Fatih Terim’s sense of humor when he said he would play third string keeper Tolga Zengin as an outfield player in that semi-final.

The rash of injuries turned the Turkish camp into their own mini hospital and their elimination deprived fans of perhaps a final of countering football philosophies: Spanish technical perfection and execution versus a Turkish fighting mentality to win in the face of insurmountable odds.

We never saw it in Euro 2008, and perhaps with the number of injuries nursed by the Turkish team, it was better we were made to wait until this Saturday when Türkiye visit the cavernous Santiago Bernabéu in Madrid to take on Spain in their Group Five World Cup qualifier. Interestingly enough and by way of the scheduling methods at FIFA when the group draws were made, the return leg is played some four days after in Istanbul giving us a convenient home-and-away fixture minus the complications of aggregate goals and the away-goal rule.

Since Euro 2008 the football relationship between Spain and Türkiye has taken on an interesting twist. Former coach and the man who led Spain to their Euro 2008 crown, Luis Aragones, was signed by Fenerbahçe whilst the man who replaced him, Vincente Del Bosque, was once coach of BeÅŸiktaÅŸ (needless to say that this is not the highlight of Del Bosque’s illustrious managerial career). Fernando Torres’ understudy at Euro 2008, David Güiza, also followed his international manager to Fenerbahçe while Türkiye’s naturalized Brazilian, Mehmet Aurelio, flew in the opposite direction to join Real Betis. He joined fellow Turks Nihat Kahveci and Ibrahim KaÅŸ who both ply their football trade in Spain for Villareal and Getafe, respectively.

Spain sit atop of Group Five with four wins out of four matches. Türkiye follow suit in second position with two wins and two draws. However, more troubling for Fatih Terim and his squad will be finding a way to score in Madrid as Spain have yet to concede a goal at home in the course of these qualifiers. With Belgium only a point behind and Bosnia-Herzegovina trailing by two points, and both countries playing their own home-and-away this week, the pressure is certainly on Türkiye to milk as many points as possible in these two crucial matches.

Making sense of the squad

The inclusion of a number of footballers from Türkiye’s lesser known clubs (but not “lesser” in stature) demonstrates the raw talent that Fatih Terim has at his disposal for selection. The call up of Sivasspor’s Sedat Bayrak is surprising if only because of the way Sivasspor has been playing of late and the fact that they still lead the Turkcell Super Lig (Türkiye’s domestic league); one might expect Fatih Terim to include more of Sedat’s teammates, such as Mehmet Yıldiz.

Another player to take a glance at is Bursaspor’s Sercan Yıldirim, demonstrated no less by his performance in Bursa’s 2-1 win over Fenerbahçe this past week when he almost scored a Lionel Messi-like goal. It was that kind of a weekend for the big clubs in Türkiye as Galatasaray continued their midweek misery in being dumped out of the UEFA Cup by Hamburg SV and culminating in a 1-0 defeat by EskiÅŸehirspor in the Ali Sami Yen Stadium. No wonder Fatih Terim has called up Eski’s Batahun Karadeniz for these important qualifiers.

Perhaps troubling for the Turkish national team is the form of its two major contributing clubs, Galatasaray and Fenerbahçe. Having engaged in a tug of war for the title last season in the months leading up to Euro 2008, both clubs find themselves trying to reassert their relevance to this season’s title chase. With Fener lying in fourth position and Galatasaray in fifth (both on same points but separated by goal difference), players from both clubs account for 10 of the 25 man provisional squad. Yet out of the three clubs that sit one, two and three in the league (Sivasspor, BeÅŸitkaÅŸ and Trabzonspor), Fatih Terim has selected only four players.

I am not one who believes that a club’s position in the table is indicative of the ability of individual players, but when Fatih Terim seems to rely on the usual suspects like Sabri SarioÄŸlu and Hakan Kadir Balta, both part of a very suspect Galatasaray defense that has gone AWOL in the last two matches, one has to wonder at their inclusions in light of who Türkiye face on Saturday.

The same applies to English born Kazim-Kazim. All are competent players on their good days, but with the rut experienced by both Galatasaray and Fenerbahçe, there should be more questions asked of Fatih Terim’s selection process considering the burdens that will be placed on the defense. Which goalkeeper should start? Fenerbahçe’s Volkan Demirel or BeÅŸiktaÅŸ’experienced (some might say too experienced) RüÅŸtü Reçber?

And while we’re on the subject of goalkeepers, the third string keeper this time around is Ufuk Ceylan selected from Vestel Manisaspor, a club in the second division. Fatih seems to operate on two extremes: the well known and usual suspects or the complete opposite in selecting someone so obscure and out of place. Hopefully Türkiye do not find themselves in a position where they have to contemplate using a third string keeper, either in goal or as Fatih joked, as an outfield player.

Et tu, Turan?

Euro 2008 sensation Arda Turan has looked somewhat sluggish and overweight in his appearances for Galatasaray, despite orchestrating a brilliant goal scored by Milan Baros against Hamburg that showed us the vast potential Arda possesses in truly becoming world class. An injury to Bayern München’s Hamit Altintop, the real engine in my mind behind the midfield for Türkiye, certainly puts the national team at a disadvantage if he is unable to be deemed match fit in time for Saturday. And the “lifeguard” Semih Åžentürk, has been rather hot or cold for Fenerbahçe depending on which matches we talk about (scoring twice against basement dwellers Haccetepe in a 7-0 obliteration or virtually non-existent in that 2-1 loss to Bursaspor last week).

Fatih Terim may have to look to Semih’s predecessor at Fener, Tuncay Åžanlı, as the man to link up with Villareal’s Nihat Kahveci, but fortunately for Fatih Terim goal scoring is not an art lost on their strikers. Much will be asked of Türkiye’s forwards to penetrate what appears to be an invincible Spanish defense and much more will be asked of Türkiye’s defense. But I cannot help but be skeptical when the anchor of Türkiye’s defense rests on the shoulders of veteran Emre Aşık due to the absence of stalwart defenders BeÅŸiktaÅŸ’ Gökhan Zan and Galatasaray’s Servet Çetin. Hopefully for Fatih Terim and 70 million of his compatriots in Türkiye, club form will not dictate the form of his players in both qualifiers.

Fatih Terim has announced that should the national team lose both matches, “it would not be the end of the world.” Perhaps, but it could be the end of their campaign to build on what they masterfully did at Euro 2008. Only if Belgium draw both matches against Bosnia-Hercegovina would two losses against Spain be sustainable for Türkiye’s qualification for South Africa. But the one question many have is which Turkish side will come out to play? Let’s hope for football sake it is a side that plays with the same resilience and hunger against a very, very good Spanish side.

Türkiye Squad

Goalkeepers: Volkan Demirel (Fenerbahçe); RüÅŸtü Reçber (BeÅŸiktaÅŸ); Ufuk Ceylan (Manisaspor)

Defenders: Gökhan Gönül (Fenerbahçe); Sabri Sabri SarioÄŸlu (Galatasaray); Emre Aşık (Galatasaray); Sedat Bayrak (Sivasspor); Ibrahim KaÅŸ (Getafe CF); Eren Güngör (Kayserispor); Hakan Kadir Balta (Galatasaray); Ibrahim Ãœzülmez (BeÅŸiktaÅŸ)

Midfielders: Hamit Altintop* (Bayern München); Kazim-Kazim (Fenerbahçe); Ayhan Akman (Galatasaray); Mehmet Aurelio (Real Betis); Emre BelözoÄŸlu (Fenerbahçe); Nuri Åžahin (Borussia Dortmund); Melvut Erdinç (FC Sochaux); Tuncay Sanlı (Middlesbrough); Arda Turan (Galatasaray)

Forwards: Nihat Kahveci (Villareal); Batuhan Karadeniz (EskiÅŸehirspor); Semih Åžentürk (Fenerbahçe); Gökhan Ãœnal (Trabzonspor); Sercan Yıldirim (Bursaspor)

*Hamit’s inclusion depending on his injury

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