Tuesday, June 15, 2021

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Turkey seeking new legends to revive past glories

  • Turkey enjoy best ever start to World Cup qualifiers
  • Sights set on return to biggest stage after 20 years
  • We look at some key takeaways from their opening victories

The big question in Turkish football this week: is their national team set to return to the world stage after a 20-year absence? The early signs are certainly promising after the Crescent Stars kicked off their qualifying campaign for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022™ with two wins from two to lead the way in a fiercely competitive Group G.­­

Pitted against three-time World Cup runners-up the Netherlands in their opening game at the Ataturk Stadium in Istanbul, Turkey threw down the gauntlet with a 4-2 win over a strong Oranje team.

Three days later, Senol Gunes’ side underlined their Qatar 2022 credentials with a resounding 3-0 win away to Norway, another of the group’s fancied sides. That victory was especially significant as Turkey had never before won their opening two games in a World Cup qualifying campaign.

Ahead of the team’s third fixture at home to Latvia tomorrow (Tuesday 30 March), hopes of a third World Cup appearance – and first in 20 years – are understandably high among the nation’s famously passionate football fans.

At Korea/Japan 2002, with star turns from the likes of Hasan Sas, Hakan Sukur and Ilhan Mansiz, Turkey stunned everyone by reaching the semi-finals, where they lost to the eventual winners Brazil. In the end, they took home the bronze medal with victory in the third-place game over co-hosts Korea Republic, memorable also for Sukur scoring the fastest goal in World Cup history after 11 seconds.

Gunes, who was also in charge of the team back in 2002, is now trying to shape a new generation of heroes with a mix of home-based and overseas talent. Ahead of the Norway game, his captain Burak Yilmaz showed how confident the team were when asked if they feared Erling Haaland: “We have great defenders and so fear no one. We’ve never been afraid of anyone.”

Key factors

Solidity: In their opening two games, the Turkish rearguard had to contain the offensive threat of players like Memphis Depay and Erling Haaland, two of the finest forwards in world football at present. However, with English Premier League players Ozan Kabak of Liverpool and Caglar Soyuncu of Leicester City alongside Kaan Ayhan of US Sassuolo, the Crescent Stars were able to hold their defensive line.

Ruthlessness: With seven goals in two games from just eight shots on target, Turkey have been ruthlessly effective up front. Gunes has plenty of top international players at his disposal, among them AC Milan’s Hakan Calhanoglu: “Turkish players are highly skilled but of course we can still improve in terms of our play and tactics,” said the coach. “However, it says a lot that only two players – Ozan Tufan and Ugurcan Cakir – from our starting line-up play in the Turkish league.”

Star quality: “I desperately want us to qualify for the World Cup,” captain Yilmaz said of their quest. The skipper clearly believes in leading by example after grabbing three of his side’s four goals against the Dutch. Then against Norway, it was the turn of Tufan to weigh in with two strikes of his own, reminding everyone that Turkey have numerous players who can win games with individual brilliance.

Turkey could not have wished for a better start on the road to Qatar 2022 and have laid the foundations for a return to football’s flagship event. If Yilmaz can continue to inspire and lead as he has been doing, then he and team-mates like Hakan Calhanoglu, Caglar Soyuncu and Tufan stand every chance of following in the footsteps of the heroes of 2002 and earning legendary status themselves.

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