New-look Galatasaray ready to roar

Posted by Cetin Cem Yilmaz

It's amazing how things can turn around in just a few months. Back in December, Galatasaray were happy to be pitted against Schalke in the last 16 of the Champions League, probably the best option in a pot that also included Barcelona, Borussia Dortmund or Bayern Munich. Schalke, probably, were even happier, and rightly so. After all, the Royal Blues could have had a Real Madrid tie on their hands but they ended up with a match against a Turkish team whose most recent Champions League success came a decade ago.

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But things changed. A lot. After a wild January, Galatasaray’s 18-man squad to face Turkish Super Lig relegation-battler Akhisar last Friday was telling the story.

Starting XI: Muslera; Sabri, Dany, Semih, Riera; Hamit, Selcuk, Yekta, Sneijder; Burak, Umut

Subs: Eray, Hakan, Emre, Engin, Eboue, Amrabat, Drogba

If Galatasaray were cautiously optimistic in December, they are now confident about their chances of making it to the quarter-finals. In a busy January transfer window, during which Schalke saw key player Lewis Holtby leaving for London, Galatasaray were welcoming Wesley Sneijder and Didier Drogba. Two world-class players. Two game-changers. Two Champions League winners.

Gala saw the opportunity to sign Sneijder and Drogba, who were unhappy at their respective clubs for different reasons, and it is clear that they duo were approached for their quality and know-how on the European stage, more than to make their mark in the Turkish division. Galatasaray would still run for the domestic title and have a good chance of winning it without Sneijder and Drogba, but only after the Dutchman and Ivory Coast ace arrived did the talk of “going further” in Europe begin. This is the stage on which they are expected to shine. And this is the stage on which their signings – an outlay of about €20 million for the club, will be justified. "These investments will pay off," Galatasaray president Unal Aysal said. "The revenue from the Champions League will cover the costs."

The first of two D-Days for this new and improved Galatasaray might have come too soon. Sneijder, who had little chance to play with Inter Milan earlier in the season, has made just two Galatasaray starts while Drogba has played barely half an hour with his new team-mates. Not that he did not turn those 27 minutes into a grand entrance to his Galatasaray career; the former Chelsea player needing just seven minutes to score a goal before creating another for Burak Yilmaz to give Galatasaray a crucial win in a game that was otherwise heading for a bore draw. But still, coach Fatih Terim is probably wishing that his critical Champions League game would come a little later so that he could have seen his two stars fully integrated into the squad.

After Saturday, it is obvious that Terim will hand Drogba his first start for the Lions and it is unlikely that he will leave Burak, whose Champions League goalscoring record is bettered only by Cristiano Ronaldo, out of the XI. Throughout his career, Terim has rarely given up on fielding two centre forwards - best seen in his fruitful Hakan Sukur-Arif Erdem pairing in the late 1990s - and he will be happy that the Drogba-Burak partnership started in prolific fashion, with one goal and one assist reading on both of the players’ match sheet. As a firm believer in attacking football, with a two-man forward line acting as the first line of defence in pressuring the opponent up front, the veteran coach will try to dictate the tempo and force Schalke into errors with the pressure provided not only from his two physical forwards, but also from a 52,000-strong crowd who boast the Guinness World Record for having the loudest roar at a sports stadium.

Terim was also quick to brush off claims that fielding three attackers at the same time would render the team fragile. "I can field Drogba, Burak and Sneijder at the same time. They played together and they will," he said after the Akhisar game. "What matters most is that talented players should run as much as the others." But still, it is clear that a midfield trio of Selcuk Inan, Hamit Altintop and Felipe Melo will have to shoulder a tough task of serving the skilled attackers and carrying out the defensive duties.

It is likely that the Turkish champions will play with some aggression and will seek goals against Schalke but there is a risk that the increased expectation will cause a backlash at the Ali Sami Yen Spor Kompleksi. Yes, Schalke are having a disappointing Bundesliga campaign but Galatasaray should bear in mind that the Royal Blues are still unbeaten in the Champions League and have an impressive away record. Furthermore, Galatasaray’s better European performances have come on the road this season, with just one win from their three home games - against an under-strength Manchester United side.

Another intimidating statistic for the hosts: Turkish teams have met German sides in 18 ties over the years and have lost 16 of them. Galatasaray will be encouraged by the fact that they are the club to have claimed those sole victories. Being the only Turkish team to have eliminated a German side - even though the last success came 12 years ago over Dortmund - will give hope that Galatasaray can do it again.

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