ISTANBUL - Much speculation and various predictions are made whenever Galatasaray travels to the Anatolian part of Istanbul to meet its arch-rival Fenerbahçe, but nothing is ever certain in Turkish football's biggest rivalry. Galatasaray looks to end nine years of misery at Fenerbahçe, while the home team plans to stop the gung-ho Lions' attacks to keep its long winning streak going another year.
There are interesting theories regarding the Fenerbahçe-Galatasaray derbies, the biggest rivalry in Turkish sports by a mile.
If Fenerbahçe is on top form, no matter how Galatasaray is playing, Fenerbahçe wins. If both sides are performing equally, Fenerbahçe wins. If Galatasaray is doing great and Fenerbahçe is playing poorly, Fenerbahçe wins again.
But what if both of them are performing with inexplicably inconsistency at the same time, as they are doing now?
Sunday’s Fenerbahçe-Galatasaray clash in the Turkcell Super League will be the most important game of the season, the first half anyway, but it is that unpredictability that makes it all the more interesting.
With both squads full of international stars, they were both expected to dominate the league at the start of the season but have been left behind by other title hopefuls, Trabzonspor and Beşiktaş. Even traditional underdogs Sivasspor and Ankaraspor are fairing better.
Galatasaray on a goal spree
Having added such big names as Harry Kewell, Milan Baros, Fernando Meira and Morgan De Sanctis to an already star-studded lineup, last year’s champion, Galatasaray, was touted as favorite to win this year’s Turkcell Super League campaign.
For someone who had only seen the Lions playing in their own den, this prediction would appear clairvoyant. So far, Galatasaray has been on a goal-scoring-spree at home at the Ali Sami Yen Stadium, knocking in 15 goals in five matches, bettering more than half of the league teams’ performances, home and away combined.
With exception to the Antalyaspor game, when the minnow Southerners managed to stop the Lions vicious attacks, Galatasaray have scored at least three goals in each home game, just as predicted before the season started.
However, this same team is virtually unrecognizable when it comes to playing away. The team has lost two games and drawn once in four away games, winning only once.
So Galatasaray will need to find a cure to its away-day woes, which is directly linked to its vulnerable defense. Coach Michael Skibbe has tried many things to solve it, including using defensive midfielder, Tobias Linderoth, as a right back or using Fernando Meira in the midfield, but has not yet succeed in turning Galatasaray into a team that can be effective on both ends of the pitch and Galatasary is sitting fifth in the league as a result.
Fener suffers adaptation problems
Still, the situation with Galatasaray can not be considered all that bad. At least not compared to Fenerbahçe. When everybody was expecting Fener to build on last year’s semifinal achievement in the Champions League, the team had to start from scratch, with chairman Aziz Yıldırım parting ways with coach Zico.
Luis Aragones, who led Spain to the much-sought European Championship title, was signed to deliver a great deal of experience, but during his adaptation to football in a different country, which still seems to be ongoing, he could not prevent Fenerbahçe's embarrassing results. Fener has suffered some heavy losses; 3-1 to Porto, 5-2 to Arsenal and a 4-1 defeat at the hands of Kayserispor.
In the end, Fenerbahçe has managed to drag itself up to ninth in the league, a vast improvement on the sixth week of the season, when it was barely hovering out of reach of the relegation zone.
Of course, both sides have their ups as well as their downs. For example, when Galatasaray’s attackers are on, they look unstoppable. Wingers Arda Turan and Harry Kewell dribble their way into the opposition box and find either striker Milan Baros or attacking midfielder Lincoln to finish.
The players’ passing traffic is second to none in Turkey, as evidenced in the third goal in the Trabzonspor game, which involved more than the half the team and came after 14 consecutive passes.
The second Galatasaray goal at Benfica in Thursday’s UEFA Cup game was equally impressive: Playmaker Ayhan Akman found Arda Turan on the left with a great lobby that froze the Portuguese defenders, and the winger headed the ball with one touch to leave striker Ümit Karan one-on-one with goalkeeper Quim.
Whether fast or slow, Galatasaray’s creativity in front of the opposition box is peerless. If Galatasaray adds a defensive sharpness to that offensive power, as it did in Portugal, it could pull off a long awaited victory. After what was arguably their best European performance in years, the Lions will also enjoy the advantage of confidence.
On the other hand, Fenerbahçe has a huge winning streak to rely on: It has not lost a game to Galatasaray at home in the last nine years, with eight wins and one draw. This means it will want to capitalize on the chance to cap a decade of complete domination against its arch-rival on home soil.
Furthermore, Fenerbahçe may not be intimidated by Galatasaray’s potential; during those nine years, there were times Galatasaray was better; For example, the 2002/2003 season, when Galatasaray was trounced 6-0 in what was otherwise a nightmare season for Fenerbahçe.
It finished sixth in the league, 26 points behind second-spot Galatasaray. Similarly, Galatasaray was knocked down 4-0 by Fenerbahçe in the last weeks of the 2005/2006 season. Two weeks later, Galatasaray would go on to win the league despite the frustrating loss.
So, while this math may not be a title decider, it will be the greatest game the football season has seen so far. That is the only thing that can be taken for granted from a derby match chock full of surprises.