With every new season comes the same discussion: who is going to win the title? In the Turkish Super Lig, the safest bet is generally one of the big three clubs from Istanbul. Home to powerhouses Besiktas, Galatasaray and Fenerbahce, Turkey's largest city has dominated the domestic football scene for as long as most fans can remember.
This year, however, another chapter of Turkish football history could be on the horizon. Following successive title challenges from Sivasspor over the past two years, another surprise package, Bursaspor, have taken the league by storm.
Founded in 1963, the club only returned to the Super Lig three years ago following a brief spell in the second tier and managed to finish an encouraging sixth last term. Now Bursa are five points ahead of their nearest rivals at the top of the table with just eight games left to play. "I have a group of players who give everything for the team and work day in, day out on the training ground," said coach Ertugrul Saglam.
"We're not thinking too much about what might happen at the end of the season and who we still have to play. We're just taking things one game at a time," continued the unassuming tactician, while club president Ibrahim Yazici emphasised the pitfalls of "putting ourselves under pressure". As Yazici points out: "There's still a long way to go."
Indeed, the fates of other clubs who have plunged from the dizzy heights of the Super Lig summit provide stark warning to the Bursaspor top brass. The aforementioned Sivasspor are a case in point after narrowly missing out on the championship for the past two years, only to find themselves entangled in a relegation dogfight this term. Other clubs full of promise such as Genclerbirligi and Kocaelispor have also suffered similar falls from grace in recent seasons.
However, with 18 wins, 53 goals and a goal difference of plus-31, Bursaspor have enjoyed a sensational campaign so far. The club's breathtaking form has also seen them put each of the Istanbul giants to the sword, with a 1-0 win at home to Galatasaray followed by 3-2 away victories at Besiktas and Fenerbahce respectively.
"They're playing like champions," said Kasimpasa coach Yilmaz Vural after his charges succumbed to a 2-0 defeat at the Bursa Ataturk Stadium. "Hopefully Bursa can cause a surprise," added their sporting director Suha Sidal.
Pipping the Istanbul trio to the title would undoubtedly be considered a huge sensation in Turkey. The capital clubs have amassed a total of 44 titles between them since the league's inception in 1959, with Trabzonspor the only club to buck the trend as they picked up six championships between 1976 and 1984.
The Bursaspor faithful will be hoping their team can cause a similar stir over the coming decade, and several rival managers are beginning to stand up and take notice. "When I said that Bursaspor were in with a chance, I got panned," said Galatasaray boss Frank Rijkaard at the beginning of the week. "Now they're the favourites, but we'll be fighting for the title right to the wire."
"We're just trying to defend our position at the top of the table as long as possible and keep focused," said Bursaspor midfielder Volkan Sen. Ibrahim Ozturk, meanwhile, was far more confident about his side's chances of glory: "I'm already dreaming about the title and how we can celebrate the success with our fans. There's no reason why we shouldn't win it," said the 28-year-old defender.
Bursaspor could well find themselves in an even stronger position at the top this coming weekend as second-placed Galatasaray (53 points) take on third-placed Fenerbahce (52 points). The clash of the Istanbul titans could also open the door for reigning champions Besiktas, currently in fourth, to move into the top three with a win.
And as if the situation at the top of the table could get any more thrilling, Bursaspor are due to face the reigning champions on the final day of the season in a match which could prove decisive. "I hope that doesn't happen," said coach Saglam. "I hope we can win the title before then and that it doesn't rest on those final 90 minutes."
Whether or not the Green Crocodiles can in fact stave off the challenges of the big three and usher in a new dawn in Turkish football remains to be seen, but one thing is for certain: there are plenty of twists and turns ahead in the Super Lig title race between now and the end of the season.