Trabzonspor are making their UEFA Champions League debut after a great season in Turkey.
By Türker Tozar
Last season, coach Ziya Dogan led Turkish minnows Malatyaspor to within a hair's breadth of beating Swiss giants FC Basel 1893 in the UEFA Cup. Trailing 2-0 from the home leg, Dogan's small, inexperienced squad won 2-0 at Saint Jakob Park, only to lose to a silver goal in extra time.
It was a result that left Turkish supporters wondering ... If Dogan could get results in Europe with an unsung club like Malatyaspor, what could he achieve with a bigger team? Twelve months on and the curious are about to find out, as the 43-year-old steers Trabzonspor into the UEFA Champions League.
A superb 2003/04 season saw Trabzonspor - traditionally Turkey's fourth-largest club behind Istanbul giants Fenerbahçe SK, Galatasaray SK and Besiktas JK - win the Turkish Cup and finish second in the league to qualify for the Champions League for the first time.
To reach the group stage, however, Dogan's men must overcome Latvian champions Skonto FC, who feature several members of Latvia's UEFA EURO 2004™ squad, in the second qualifying round before a potential meeting with one of Europe's top sides in the third qualifying round.
Dogan is certainly not getting carried away. Of Skonto, he said: "I have watched them and we cannot fall into the trap of underestimating them. We are up against a serious opponent, although I believe we are stronger than them."
Considering his club's record in Europe, Dogan is right to be cautious. The Black Sea team might have been Turkish champions six times, dominating in the late 1970s and early 1980s under coach Ahmet Suat Özyazici, but that success has not been transferred to the continental stage.
Trabzonspor's best achievement was reaching the UEFA Cup third round after defeating England's Aston Villa FC in 1994/95. But since Dogan took charge last February and moulded the side into his preferred 4-4-2 system, expectations have risen fast.
We want to represent Turkish football in the best way we can and qualify for the Champions League," explained the coach, whose arrival prompted a run of eleven league wins. "We are focused on this target and have the strength and ambition to achieve it."
The Turkish Superleague clubs who came up against Dogan's men in the latter stages of last season will attest to that. Twelve points behind then leaders Besiktas last February, Trabzonspor came to within an ace of snatching the title from eventual winners Fenerbahçe.
The heartbeat of Trabzonspor's attack-minded team is a midfield containing international playmaker Gökdeniz Karadeniz and new Belgian signing Bernd Thijs, with Guinean international Ibrahima Yattara on the right and Korean Lee Eul-Yong on the left. These provide ammunition for strikers Fatih Tekke and Mehmet Yilmaz.
Simple but effective
A simple formation, perhaps, but one that has proved extremely effective in the hands of the coach whose single-mindedness has made him one of the rising stars of Turkish football. "I am stubborn, ambitious and self-confident," said Dogan. Qualities that could yet propel Trabzonspor into the Champions League group stage.