Photo: GETTY IMAGES
At the site of Istanbul’s old Ali Semi Yen stadium, few clues remain that this
was once European football’s most intimidating venue. Builders occupy the
premises, working on a towering retail mall.
The spot where Galatasaray supporters used to greet guests with ’Welcome to
Hell’ placards and shudder the foundations with firecrackers and drums is
transforming into that genuinely infernal modern monster: A shopping centre
where you could be marooned 20 storeys from the exit.
Some Galatasaray die-hards miss the Ali Semi Yen, its intimacy between stand
and pitch, its city-centre location. Their home of the last three years, the
Turk Telekom Arena, which Chelsea
visit in the Champions
League on Wednesday, is thoroughly 21st century, with plenty of the
surrounding acreage and extra capacity ambitious clubs seek by relocating to
For the Istanbul police, the TT Arena’s distance from downtown would have
counted as a plus on Saturday, when some of their manpower was called on to
confront anti-government protests. In the old days of the Ali Semi Yen,
crowds leaving a Galatasaray-Besiktas derby would have spilt into the
streets close by. As it was, the derby passed off noisily, but
incident-free, several kilometres away from Turkey’s latest episode of civil
Galatasaray’s 1-0 win, thanks to a first-half penalty from Selcuk Inan, meant
they leapfrogged Besiktas into second place in the Super Lig. In Turkey’s
top flight this season, second carries the practical value of first, at
least as long as Fenerbahce – who hold a three-point lead, and play their
game in hand tonight [Monday] – command the summit. Fenerbahce cannot take
up the one automatic Champions League spot next season, title-winners or
not, because they will still be serving out a two-year ban from European
football for their part in a match-fixing conspiracy during 2011. So, should
Galatasary maintain their current position, they will be guaranteed a place
in club football’s elite competition, even if they fall sort of defending
their domestic title.
That is crucial for Gala. The state-of-art 50,000-plus new stadium was built
for a European superclub. The salaries paid to their leading recruits assume
regular Champions League income.
So far, the upgrade is working. In two completed seasons at the TT Arena,
Galatasary have finished Turkish champions twice; they are in the knockout
stage of the Champions League for the second year running – a repeat
unprecedented for the club this century – and they are attractive enough as
employers that names such as Didier Drogba and Wesley Sneijder, both signed
13 months ago, join the staff.
Likewise Roberto Mancini, head coach since October. There is a small irony in
Mancini being taken on by Galatasaray, a club in a league where second place
may very well carry the dividend normally granted to first, so soon after he
was sacked by a Manchester City unsatisfied by runners-up medals in Premier
League and FA Cup.
But everyday pressures and tensions are no lighter in Istanbul. Witness the
training-ground set-to Mancini had to pacify last week, an ill-tempered
scuffle between senior players Felipe Melo and Gokhan Zan: Shades of
Balotelli v Richards, Touré v Adebayor and other bouts from his City stint.
In one important respect, Mancini’s Gala have already trumped Mancini-era
City. He has guided his current club beyond the group phase of the Champions
League, and did so by taking four points off Juventus, enough to eliminate
the Serie A scudetto-holders.
Galatasary’s improvement since Mancini took over a squad who, under Fatih
Terim, had been thrashed 6-1 by Real Madrid, at home, at the outset of their
European campaign and earned just seven points from their first five Super
Lig matches, is appreciated.
Behind the goal defended by Galatasaray in the first-half on Saturday, some
talented graphic artists displayed a banner with a black-and-white image of
Mancini’s face set against the vivid orange and red of his new club’s
colours. His peers praise him.
“He’s done a great job,” says Slaven Bilic, coach of Besiktas, and another
pedigree manager who now calls Istanbul home. “Coming through a group with
Real Madrid and Juventus is his biggest achievement, and in the Turkish
championship he’s doing OK and this is a good league. Plus he’s put
Galatasaray in the semi-final of the Cup. Of course they have a great squad,
but a lot of credit goes to him.”
Bilic felt, with some justification, Mancini’s team had escaped with more
points than their less-than-fluent football deserved in the derby. Besiktas
came to a full, boisterous TT Arena intent on taking the initiative. Key to
that, Bilic believed, was to “neutralise their main players in the middle,
Felipe Melo, Selcuk, and Sneijder. When you cut that link between the
defence and the attack, then you give yourself a chance.”
Besiktas’s Necip Uysal policed Sneijder effectively, limiting his most
productive moments to set pieces, their target usually Drogba. But
Galatasaray are not only about their celebrated Dutch and Ivorian icons. An
adventurous run by right back Veysel Sari, fouled in the penalty area, gave
Gala the breakthrough. “They like to push their fullbacks quite high,” notes
A hard ask for the Premier League visitors on Wednesday? “Judging by the
weekend’s performance, then you’d say Chelsea to win,” replied Bilic, “But
having seen Galatasaray against Juventus, in their 2-2 draw in Turin, and
the 1-0 win here, they can be very dangerous.
“And the atmosphere here is brilliant, very passionate, very loud. But Chelsea
will probably love that.”