For the two clubs outside of Europe’s big five leagues in action in the round of 16 of the Champions League last week, the first leg games are probably best forgotten.
Two home ties, nine goals conceded, none scored – FC Basel and FC Porto will have been glad to return to domestic action at the weekend after their mauling at the feet of Manchester City and Liverpool, respectively.
Next up come Turkish champions, the Black Eagles of Besiktas – who travel to Munich on Tuesday to face a Bayern side cruising serenely to a sixth Bundesliga title on the trot. Can they fare any better?
It’d be nice for the sake of drama to think that they could. Their performances in the competition thus far suggest that the German champions shouldn’t take them lightly.
But realistically, the “have nots” of Europe tend not to see the sharper end of the Champions League, so the last 16 is likely to be the last stop on what has been an historic campaign for the Istanbul side.
Historic because this is the first time Besiktas have reached the knockout phase of the competition and because in doing so they became the first Turkish side to win a Champions League group.
Şenol Güneş’s men picked up an impressive 14 points from a possible 18 from Group G, winning four and drawing two of their games, qualifying with a game to spare.
Away victories over all three of their opponents – Porto (1-3), Monaco (1-2) and RB Leipzig (1-2) – were particularly notable. Here we have a Turkish side that travels well, and one that appears to have impressive mental fortitude allied with a degree of quality.
And that fortitude has been much in evidence in recent years – the club winning back to back Turkish Super Lig titles under veteran manager Gunes having been close to financial collapse less than five years ago and having been under strict Financial Fair Play restrictions over much of the intervening period.
Gunes has been experiencing quite the Indian summer career wise. Those of you with long memories may recall that he was named UEFA Coach of the Year in 2002 after guiding the Turkish national side to third place in that year’s World Cup.
But then things went very quiet for Gunes, achieving little of note at Trabzonspor, FC Seoul and Bursapor before winning his first Turkish title as a manager with the Black Eagles in 2016 at the ripe old age of 63.
And the manager isn’t the only one enjoying a late flourish – for the Besiktas squad is packed with players, many familiar, who are somewhat long in the tooth.
Their regular back four of Pepe (who joined on a free transfer from Real Madrid in the summer), Dusko Tosic, Gokhan Gonul and Adriano of Barcelona fame have a combined age of 143!
Ahead of them in midfield sits the 35-year-old Canadian international Atiba Hutchinson (who scored in last Friday’s nights disappointing 1-1 draw at struggling Konyaspor), while Ricardo Quaresma (34), Ryan Babel (31) and Alvaro Negredo (32) can been seen occupying attacking roles.
Indeed, the club’s need for a bargain and an eye–catching name saw Wagner Lover, now 33, join Gunes’s Dad’s Army last month to help fill the gap left by the sale of striker Cenk Tosun to Everton.
The Istanbul side certainly don’t lack for experience. And in truth, they also possess quality – which has been evident in their European endeavours this season.
But while their collective experience commands respect, you have to fear for their legs in Munich tomorrow night.
And the fact that they’ve only managed to keep three clean sheets in 18 away games in all competitions this season suggests they face a similar fate to Basel and Porto.
Regardless, it’s domestic affairs that must be their ultimate focus. But Friday night’s damaging draw sees them fourth with 12 games left to play.
Naturally, Gunes’s men would love to retain their Super League title, but a top two finish, and hence a return to the Champions League next season, has to be the base requirement for a club with big ambitions but hamstrung by financial difficulty.
The Champions League is a lucrative adventure, but the domestic league is the bread and butter and the key to those returns.