By Kadira Malkoc and Adam Szreter
Turkey coach Senol Günes has urged his side to further enhance an already formidable reputation when they meet F.Y.R. Macedonia in Skopje in EURO 2004™ qualifying Group 7 on Saturday.
Günes is anxious for Turkey, surprise semi-finalists at this summer's FIFA World Cup, to consolidate their status as the most improved team in world football, though he knows better than to underestimate Macedonia, the so-called 'Balkan minnows' who drew 3-3 with his men in World Cup qualifying.
A greater onus
The coach warned that increased success demanded greater responsibility. "We have learned our lesson through history," he told uefa.com. "We are also aware that there is now more of an onus to do well. We have to be a team that can shoulder the weight of expectation and we must continue to improve."
But try as he might Günes cannot help revelling in Turkey's meteoric rise. "We have always had individually talented players but we made a key change when we dropped the 3-5-2 playing system favoured in the [UEFA] European Championship in 2000," he said. "We have since experimented with different tactics and it has been to our advantage. At the World Cup we were most interested in improving the quality of our football rather than winning or losing."
Günes could be without Fenerbaçhe SK goalkeeper Rüstü Reçber, whose chronic back injury made him unusually uncertain in last month's 3-0 home win over Slovakia, though the shot-stopper has postponed surgery and travelled with the squad. Galatasaray SK midfield player Cihan Haspolatli is also a doubt after twisting his ankle in training but Turkey have been strengthened by the return of Besiktas JK forward Ilhan Mansiz, who needed a knee operation following his impressive contribution in the Far East, and Fener youngster Serhat Akin also receives a call-up. Hakan Sükür, meanwhile, has still not found a club and has been dropped
For all the immediacy of the Macedonia game, Günes cannot help but look ahead to next year's contests with England - the games he considers the acid test of Turkey's prospects. "Obviously, our short-term targets are Macedonia and next week Liechtenstein but to finish top we must overcome England. We are aware of their power and we have been unsuccessful against them in the past. In the short term we have the better results but they are strong and have a good coach. They are the No1 challenge."
Macedonia, who were held 1-1 in Liechtenstein last month, have concerns over Georgi Hristov's knee, although the latest reports indicate the NEC Nijmegen striker will start against Turkey rather than England, as coach Nikola Ilievski believes there is a greater chance of claiming home points on Saturday than there is of taking something from next week's trip to Southampton. "We are aware that Turkey are favourites but if we want success we have to play to the best of our abilities and show extreme discipline," Ilievski said. "The atmosphere in the team is very positive and it is up to the players to show this on the pitch."
In Saturday's other Group 7 encounter, England open their campaign away to Slovakia with the absence of Sol Campbell and Rio Ferdinand handing an opportunity to Middlesbrough FC centre-backs Gareth Southgate and Ugo Ehiogu to impress. The pair are determined to make a point after World Cup disappointments - the former travelled but stayed on the bench, the latter missed out through injury - but they can expect no favours from Slovakia striker Szilard Nemeth, their club colleague at Boro.
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