It's now or never for Istanbul BK
Background photo: Maurice Flesier, CC BY-SA 4.0
Super Lig is dominated by Istanbul, Turkey's largest city. Like Edinburgh to Glasgow in Scotland, capital city Ankara takes a back seat. Whereas the English Premier League top four became a top six recently, the Big Three in Istanbul are now a Big Four. Galatasaray, Fenerbahce and Besiktas are joined by Istanbul Basaksehir.
A fifth Istanbul side, Kasimpasa, float in and out of the top flight. Yet to win the title after 98 years, they are now officially the fifth wheel. Istanbul BK came along in 1990 as Buyuksehir Belediyespor but reformed in 2014 to become Basaksehir. They haven't looked back. The club underwent a major overhaul with significant investment. The blue crest features muted stars in the background and the year of their reformation under a Picasso-esque upper case B. Silver is the colour associated with the revitalised side due to their capability to push for the title but not win it.
Manager Abdullah Avci previously held the national Turkish team job. Before that, he managed the original iteration of the club but remains the only boss for the upgraded version. In his second go-round, there's been no problem attracting talent. Gael Clichy and Gokhan Inler arrived in the first wave. Add in Arda Turan, Emmanuel Adebayor, Demba Ba and Robinho and Avci can't complain his roster isn't well stocked. He can wonder if the club will sign some younger stars. The big names are all in their 30s. Playing out the string, they've begun to run out of energy in the run-in. Worried faces are commonplace lately in the stands at the Fatih Terim Stadium.
One thing a club trying to hold onto their first league title doesn't need is a daily supply of irony. Their stadium is named for a Super Lig and Serie A legend. The problem? Terim is still an active manager. In charge at Galatasaray, he's mounting a serious assault on BK's lead in the table. Following Cimbom's 3-1 victory over Kayserispor yesterday, the gap between first and second is two points pending BK's result against Rizespor today. How do you make the opposing manager feel unwelcome when his name is over the front door?
There is one youngster in the starting XI. Irfan Kahveci is eager to win his first trophy at 23 but no more so than his midfield partner, Emre Belozoglu. Fifteen years the elder, Belozoglu's seen it all in the ancient city, winning the Super Lig title with Fenerbache and Galatasaray a combined six times. He's hoping to make it an Istanbul treble by winning the title with yet another capital club this year.
Bosnian Edin Visca completes the midfield triumvirate. A consistent performer, the 29-year-old tops the club's goal and assist charts with 11 and 12 respectively. Without his direct goal contributions, the team would be in a very different place.
Winning the first title is said to be the most difficult. Mauricio Pochettino can back that up. After Hatayspor rudely ousted BK from the Turkish Cup in mid-January with a 4-1 triumph at the Antakya Ataturk Stadium, the table-toppers responded with a nine-match unbeaten run in the Super Lig. Besiktas ended that run last week with a 2-1 victory at the Vodafone Park. Galatasaray hasn't lost in the Lig since they went to the Vodafone on 2 December.
Supporters must believe there's no better opportunity to win the title than this season but also have to ponder whether their ageing squad can finish the job. Bafetimbi Gomis didn't even try. The 33-year-old former Swansea striker moved to Al-Hilal in the Saudi Professional League just after the season kicked off. The Turkish division's physicality takes its toll. The other evergreens in Avci's team may look to the Gulf, the Far East or MLS for one last payday or they may just hang them up. Win or lose, the club faces a rebuild in the summer.
There aren't many goals in the squad either. BK tends to grind out its results. Edin Visca is a productive constant but the veteran forwards rotate in and out of the lineup. It hurts their form. The club wins matches on average by a meagre 1.2 goals.
The three clubs immediately behind, Gala, Besiktas and Trabzonspor are unbeaten in their last five games. Losing to the Black Eagles gives BK the worst form in the top four. Eight and nine points behind, the latter pair are less concerning with five games to go when the weekend fixtures are complete, but Basaksehir must travel to the Turk Telekom Arena to face Fatih Terim and Gala. That match could decide the title.
Abdullah Avci's side must win out to be certain of hoisting the trophy. Next year's roster will look entirely different. For Istanbul Basaksehir, it's now or never.