At the halfway mark in the 2007-8 campaign, the Turkish top
flight standings have a distinctly unfamiliar look to them. After
17 matches, the Istanbul-based big three of Fenerbahce, Galatasaray
and Besiktas are cast in the unlikely role of pursuers behind
surprise front-runners Sivasspor. A mere three points cover the
sides from top spot down to Besiktas in fourth, but what coach
Bulent Uygun and his men have achieved so far still rates as one of
the biggest shocks in European league football this term.
The Anatolia-based club first won a place in the second division in 2000-2001, appearing as fringe candidates in the promotion battle for a number of seasons after that. The second division championship and a prized berth in the Turkcell Super Lig finally arrived two-and-a-half years ago in summer 2005.
Sivasspor finished a highly respectable eighth in their debut top flight season, advancing a place to seventh the following year, but this term's form under greenhorn coach Uygun is still a revelation. The Anatolian upstarts currently represent the crème de la crème in Turkish club football with 37 points and the best goal difference in the section, leaving the highly-fancied Istanbul giants scrambling to keep pace.
Goal-getters Mohamed Kurtulus and Mehmet Yildiz have emerged as the star players this term for the club founded as recently as 1967. Thirty-three year-old midfielder Kurtulus has eight goals to his name, with his team-mate contributing a further seven. Sivasspor's miserly 13 goals against is the second-best record in the league, this despite the absence of influential Australian international keeper Michael Petkovic with injury since late October.
Unity and team spirit appear the key to the surprise leaders' success. They have already visited all three of their chief pursuers in Istanbul, losing to Fenerbahce and Galatasaray but coming away from Besiktas with all three points, and have otherwise displayed a consistency their rivals are struggling to match.
On the right track
With all three Istanbul clubs still to visit the compact 18,500 capacity Sivas 4 Eylul Stadi in the second half of term, 36-year-old coach Uygun's optimistic vision for 2008 is easy to understand. "Given our limited resources and small budget, my players have done a great job so far, and I believe they can keep it up in the second half of the season too," the former Turkey international and Fenerbahce striker comments.
International experience from overseas is another feature of Uygun's regular line-up. At the still-tender age of 23, Guinea starlet Mamaduo Diallo offers a commanding defensive presence, although he will miss his club's early matches in the second half of the campaign as he will be away on CAF Africa Cup of Nations Ghana 2008 duty. Up front, Israel international Pini Felix Balili is now in his third season at the club and has chalked up two goals in 14 matches, although his real value to the team is as a provider.
After becoming the first Anatolian side for 14 years to top the standings at the midpoint in the campaign, Uygun and his men now face a true test of their credentials as they seek to prove the achievement is no flash in the pan, nor merely a product of their rivals' inconsistency. The remainder of the Turkcell Super Lig programme promises excitement galore and potentially the first champions from outside Istanbul since Trabzonspor's title triumph back in 1984, fully 24 years ago.