Wednesday, April 21, 2010
Underdogs closing on title success
There is a similarity if you look around some of the top league in Europe at the moment: the cream of the crop have had to wait a long time for their chance of success.
Of course, I'm not talking about the likes of Chelsea (three years) or Benfica (four years), but those clubs that have risen to the top after literally decades of trying and, in some cases, those who have never done it before.
Marseille have spent a solid 18 years trying to regain the French title they once dominated, with manager Didier Deschamps now leading the charge at the cost of deposed champions Bordeaux and former greats Lyon, while Young Boys of Switzerland, under the wing of Vladimir Petkovic, are looking to finish top of the league for the first time in 24 years. However, there are two clubs that stand head and shoulders above the rest in their unexpected title tilts.
Firstly, and most impressively, it is Bursaspor in Turkey. Potentially the first club to ever break the stranglehold of the so-called 'Big Four' of Galatasaray, Fenerbahce, Besiktas (in the early 90s) and Trabzonspor (in the late 70s/early 80s), Bursaspor (who were only founded in 1963) are treading a well-worn path with sides such as Sivasspor mounting challenges to the established order in recent years, only to fall at the last hurdle.
Bursaspor face Galatasaray this weekend, knowing that a win would put them in pole position to take home the title with Fener a point behind them, and confidence is not in short supply. The side are led by former Turkey international defender-cum-striker Ertugrul Saglam, who is winning many neutral fans over with his positive attitude.
"I have never said anything I do not believe in, and I totally believe when I say Bursaspor will be the champions," he said last week. "The level of play my players performed in the second half of Genclerbirligi match and their determination make me believe in the title more. Bursaspor will be the champion. I can sincerely say that thanks to my players and our supporters."
Of course, the list of pretenders to the Turkish throne is long and the 'Green Crocodiles' would do well to heed the warning of Sivas, who, this season, are fighting relegation. It has been 26 years since the title was even taken out of Istanbul and Bursa face an uphill struggle if they are to be ones to do it.
Some fans fear that the pressure of a possible title is affecting the team, especially young talents like Sercan Y1ld1r1m, Volkan Sen and Ozan Ipek, but the club can call on some experienced heads to see them through.
Bursa's 32-year-old midfielder Ali Tandogan, a former Besiktas player, told Hurriet: "We have very young and talented players in the team, a very rare thing for the Anatolian teams. We are in the mindset for the championship, but some stories in the media create pressure on the team. Some stories make us think 'Can we really do that?' but we have no intention of backing up until the challenge is over."
Bursaspor's title would certainly be a surprise after so many years with a select few teams on top, but Turkey is not the only place the underdogs are prevailing.
Steve McClaren's FC Twente have never won the Dutch league before and stand just a game away from glory this weekend if they can overcome NAC Breda.
Ajax, PSV Eindhoven and Feyenoord have dominated the Eredivisie in recent years, with AZ Alkmaar the only side to break up the triumvirate in the past 20 years, but the former England coach now has a chance to become the first of his fellow countrymen to win a major European league since Sir Bobby Robson managed it with FC Porto in 1996.
Twente's rise is somewhat less surprising because they finished second behind AZ last season, but it still represents an incredible achievement for a side viewed as out-of-towners by the major clubs and dubbed "peasants" by the Ajax and Feyenoord fans.
Undoubtedly happy to avoid the intense media spotlight that the English press shone constantly on him, McClaren has been the driving force behind the club's success. Initially a figure of fun for the way he embraced the Dutch culture (to the extent that he adopted a fake Dutch accent at one of his first press conferences), he has developed an understanding of the game in Holland and is thriving in an environment that many suggested may be beyond him.
With the team regularly attracting 24,000-strong, noisy, sell-out crowds, no-one can argue that he has not produced on the pitch. By his own admission, he has been forced to "polish up rough diamonds", although the €5.5m spent on striker Bryan Ruiz - a free-scoring Costa Rican who now has 23 in 33 league appearances - may prove to be the signing of the season.
Taking Slovakian Miroslav Stoch on loan from Chelsea, McClaren has used the winger to good effect in a 4-3-3 system that harks back to the 'total football' philosophy engineered in the lowlands by the legendary Rinus Michels and Johan Cruyff.
"I decided I'd better adapt to 4-3-3," McClaren told the media before the 2-0 win over Feyenoord that put them on the brink of the title. "If it was good enough for thousands of Dutchmen, it was good enough for me. And in Holland, football is about performance - fans can see their team lose but still be happy if they've played well."
In playing well and winning the title, upsetting the established order in the act, McClaren's Twente side could be in good company come the end of the season in Europe.