Nihat fuels the Yellow Submarine
"Even though those who finish second don't go down in history, coming second in Spain is like winning the league anywhere else," said Villarreal's Turkish ace Nihat Kahveci a few weeks ago, after his club had moved into second spot behind leaders Real Madrid.
And while Real's lead at the top now looks insurmountable, Los Merengues lying ten points clear of Villarreal and nine clear of Barcelona with six games to play, the Submarino Amarillo (Yellow Submarine) are determined to edge out the Catalan giants and qualify directly for the UEFA Champions League group stage.
The Turkish front-runner is no stranger to battling it out in the upper echelons of La Liga, having finished second in the 2002/03 campaign with Basque outfit Real Sociedad. And La Real had come mightily close to taking that season's title, only to be undone by a late dip in form.
Nihat signed for the San Sebastian-based club in 2002 from Besiktas, joining a dressing room already containing established talents such as Xabi Alonso, Valery Karpin and Darko Kovacevic. His sheer pace, creativity, fighting spirit and eye for goal soon came to the fore in the blue-and-white stripes of Sociedad, Kovacevic and Nihat firing 20 and 23 league goals respectively to form La Liga's most potent strike partnership.
On an individual note, Nihat finished joint-second in the race for the Pichichi (awarded to La Liga's leading scorer), level with Real Madrid striker Ronaldo but behind Deportivo's Roy Makaay. However, the pressures of coping on the domestic and European front hit Real Sociedad hard the following campaign, the club entering a downward spiral.
Curse of the left knee
Though now firmly ensconced in the lower reaches of the table, Nihat's characteristic drive and determination continued to keep his team afloat until, in February 2005, he tore the cruciate ligament in his left knee. "The injury struck when I was playing the best football of my life, but I never gave in.
"It wasn't easy, but I had the help of my marvellous wife, who helped me so much. The doctors, physios and my friends also encouraged me and helped keep my spirits up. I have to be very grateful because they were all there for me," said the player.
Ruled out for the remainder of the 2004/05 campaign, Nihat returned for the Blanquiazules the following season - his last for the club. Next stop for the inspirational forward was up-and-coming Villarreal, who, despite the player's injury problems, felt he could prove the ideal foil for Uruguayan sharpshooter Diego Forlan. Yet his run of bad luck was not over yet, a freak training-ground incident in November 2006 tearing the cruciate ligament in his left knee once more.
Few players recover fully from such a serious repeat injury, but the striker's immense willpower once again saw him back and among the goals. "Nothing has been easy. ," says Nihat, who returned in time to hit three goals in nine league and two cup games.
And 2007/08 has seen Nihat finally put any doubts over his form and fitness to bed: "After everything I've been through I'm having a great season. I'm enjoying my football and helping my team." He certainly is, and with 14 goals he is the Yellow Submarine's leading scorer.
Nor is his fine form limited to club level. In November 2007, he earned hero status with fans of the Turkish national team with the winning goal against Bosnia Herzegovina, a victory that cemented Turkey's place at UEFA EURO 2008, which will be their first appearance at a major tournament since finishing third at the 2002 FIFA World Cup Korea/Japan™.
Having made two brief substitute appearances at the showpiece event in the Far East, against Costa Rica and Japan, Nihat will be hoping for a much greater impact at this summer's tournament in Austria and Switzerland. Scorer of 14 goals in Turkish colours already, he will also have one eye on qualifying for South Africa 2010 - at the expense of group rivals and Nihat's current home, Spain.