When the odds for the Turkish Super League title were released before the start of the season, Beşiktaş JK were the least fancied of Istanbul's big three.
However, as a consequence of the modest financial approach employed by the club's newly elected board and coach Samet Aybaba's philosophy of affording opportunities to young players, the Black Eagles have defied expectations. Fourth last term, they head into Sunday's derby at leaders Galatasaray AŞ two points shy of the summit, 11 top-flight games unbeaten and as the division's 40-goal top scorers.
Change began when Fikret Orman was voted in as president last March and started the task of tackling Beşiktaş's sizeable debts. High earners Fabian Ernst, Egemen Korkmaz, Simão Sabrosa and Ricardo Quaresma were offloaded, and a couple of players accepted reduced salaries as part of a restructuring process. Moreover, eight players were signed in the summer for a grand total of €1.8m.
"In our talks, we put an emphasis on team spirit and the fact that having expensive players in your squad doesn't guarantee success," said football director Semih Usta. "It can only come with players who have faith in the team."
The club also went back to their roots by appointing Aybaba, a former Beşiktaş sweeper and captain from the 1980s and a man renowned for spotting and developing young talent. The result has been an exciting fusion of seasoned campaigners and promising starlets. "We have young players but they all need time and experience," said Aybaba. "We have to promote one or two to the first team each year. This is not a common system in Turkey but we want to change that."
"We believe our case to be an example for other teams," explained Usta. "People have realised that it's possible to be successful without spending big money. We made our short-to-long-term plans and will do our best to transform Beşiktaş into a club that pays particular attention to youth infrastructure, facilities and scouting."
Unlike their city rivals, Beşiktaş did not openly target the title. Consequently, the pressure has been off and they have been able to go about their business quietly, taking advantage while others around them stumble.
The assists and guile offered by midfielder Manuel Fernandes and the goals of Hugo Almeida and Filip Hološko have been instrumental in Beşiktaş's progress, while the form of 25-year-old left-winger Olcay Şahan and 20-year-old attacking midfielder Oğuzhan Özyakup – pre-season arrivals from 1. FC Kaiserslautern and Arsenal FC respectively – has been particularly impressive.
The only downside has been their recording of just three clean sheets in 18 league games, a statistic that could undermine their surprise push for the championship. "We have increased the motivation of our young players and strengthened the squad with some low-cost signings or free agents," said Aybaba, a two-time league winner during his 11-year playing spell with Beşiktaş.
"Most importantly, we came up with players who are passionate for the club and put sporting success as their top priority. I never considered the possibility of not being near the top. The fact we are second does not surprise me."
Can Beşiktaş continue their ascent and finish top of the pile for the first time since 2009? "I expect a very challenging second half of the Super League season," added Aybaba, who guided Gençlerbirliği SK and Trabzonspor AŞ to Turkish Cup success in 2001 and 2003 respectively. "If our players can show their resilience like they did in the first half, things will be easier for us."
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