By Türker Tozar
Turkey's FIFA World Cup qualifiers against Albania on Saturday and Georgia next Wednesday will go a long way towards deciding whether the 2002 semi-finalists have a realistic chance of reaching Germany 2006.
But with Ersun Yanal's team lying third in Group 2, eight points behind leaders Ukraine albeit with a game in hand, the pressure is on a Turkish side that raised expectations with their third-place finish at the Korea/Japan World Cup but then failed to qualify for UEFA EURO 2004™.
Turkey opened their Group 2 account with a 1-1 draw against Georgia in Trabzon last September, followed by a goalless draw away to European champions Greece. October's 4-0 home win against Kazakhstan seemed to ease the burden on Yanal's shoulders, but more criticism came in the wake of the 1-1 draw in Denmark, and then the 3-0 home reverse against Ukraine in November which led many to believe qualification was out of reach. Yanal, though, refuses to concede defeat.
"We have a tough two-match period ahead of us," said Yanal. "Injuries are not a serious concern for us and my players have the strength to win both games. When the opposition have the ball, we will not allow them to take a breath. We will pressure them constantly. Our creative players will be very useful in both ties."
Yanal's players are also aware of the importance of the next two fixtures if they are to improve on their precarious position. "We will get six points from the two games we are going to play. This is our last chance to get back in contention," said Galatasaray SK striker Necati Ates. Fenerbahçe SK midfielder Serkan Balci added: "We must win both games."
Turkey will have to do so without the services of Fenerbahçe defender Servet Çetin, who has an ankle injury and is replaced by Rizespor's Kürsat Duymus, while Real Sociedad de Fútbol forward Nihat Kahveci is out for the rest of the season after tearing knee ligaments. Nevertheless, Yanal has various alternatives to fill the void left by Nihat, though they do not include veteran striker Hakan Sükür.
The 43-year-old coach has been criticised for excluding the former FC Internazionale Milano player throughout qualifying, but Yanal defended his decision saying: "Hakan did not fit my playing style." Yet he recently called up Denizlispor's Ersen Martin, a player regarded by many as very similar to Hakan. "
I have the right to choose the players I want, and people should respect my decisions and stay silent," Yanal responded.
Whatever the views on Hakan's omission, the country is united in hoping the team can win their next two games to eradicate the feelings of anxiety and discomfort currently surrounding the national side. Now Turkey must deliver.
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