Portuguese trinity levels stormy Istanbul derby

by Jonathan O'Shea

It ended in a deluge; having started with a human landslide. Despite the relatively balmy conditions in northern Turkey on Thursday, the opening Istanbul derby of the Super Lig season was a veritably stormy affair.

An enthralling end-to-end affair between hosts Besiktas and disgraced champions Fenerbahce, two of Turkey’s traditional ‘big three’, climaxed amid a torrent of scarves hurled onto the pitch by home fans trying desperately to disrupt Fener’s belated attempt at snatching all three points. It began with a bang too. An alarming charge of away supporters through an apparently unguarded security gate, down the terraces of the Inonu, where a large police presence struggled manfully – and ultimately successfully – to prevent a full-blown pitch invasion brought play to an early standstill.

Within minutes of the resumption, Besiktas winger Simao, one of the Black Eagles’ recently-assembled Portuguese trinity, thumped in a scorching shot past the flailing arms of the helpless Turkish no.1, Volkan. A spectacular goal indeed, but it came as a bolt from the blue, against the general run of play.

In spite of Fener’s controversy-ridden start to the campaign – Champions League expulsion due to an ongoing match-fixing investigation and the temporary banning of men from the Sukru Saracoglu stadium because of crowd violence have blighted their proud reputation – they’d shot to the top of the early Super Lig table ahead of this clash. And the 18-times league champions posed a frequent threat to the Besiktas goal, with versatile midfielder Caner Erkin and, more particularly, goal-scoring playmaker Alex to the fore throughout.

Now reaching veteran status, the former Seleçao star has lost none of his skill or sense of purpose in and around the opposition area. Emulating his phenomenal tally of 28 league goals last season will prove a tall order, but Alex at least took another baby step in that direction with his third of this campaign on the hour mark. Besiktas ‘keeper Cenk Gonen’s redoubtable resistance was breached only when Erkin’s shot cannoned back off his post for the perfectly placed Alex to slot in the equaliser.

With the subsequent arrival of the third member of the Portuguese trio, Hugo Almeida, from the bench, the home side immediately snapped back into life. The second amigo, ex-Barça and Chelsea wide-man Ricardo Quaresma, had endured a typically frustrating first hour: many of his often superfluous flicks and tricks coming to naught; the quality of his final ball sorely lacking. As is the-poor-man’s-Cristiano Ronaldo’s wont, he subsequently played a major role in turning the tide back in his team’s favour.

Not long after Quaresma had threatened Volkan’s goal himself, Besiktas restored their lead in the 71st minute through a powerful close-range header by former Werder Bremen target-man Almeida. Warming to the task of drawing his side within a point of Fener at the top, Quaresma left his marker for dead with characteristically fancy footwork, and a coolly-executed precision cross left his towering compatriot with a bread-and-butter finish.

An already-open game, brimful with technical excellence and attacking ingenuity, proceeded to zip from end to end as Fener sought a second equaliser and Besiktas attempted to take advantage of their opponents’ desperation by striking on the counter through their potent Portuguese trindade.

But, amid mounting pressure from the visitors, the final word came from the refined boot of the hitherto below-par Cristian Baroni. His stunning 88th minute free-kick matched Simao’s earlier effort in its unerring accuracy; evading the defensive wall and nestling neatly in the bottom-left corner of the Besiktas net.

Then the downpour began. First tens, then perhaps hundreds, of scarves avowing allegiance to the Black Eagles’ cause teemed down onto the turf, and the flurry reached fever-pitch when the referee injudiciously charged toward the fans in a vain attempt to curb their enthusiasm. Despite having matched their rivals blow-for-blow for most of the game, the fear of a late, unjust defeat became tangible inside the self-proclaimed ‘loudest stadium in the world’. The fans’ frantic intervention perhaps helped their heroes over the line and the final whistle blew at 2-2.

It’s not considered the most vitriolic or intense Istanbul derby of the lot – that dubious honour must go to Fener’s explosive ties with eternal foes Galatasaray – but few local rivalries across the globe this year will produce 90 minutes which marries such sustained thrills and skills throughout. The Super Lig might well be battling through an off-field cataclysm on the scale of the European sovereign debt crisis, but, at its top-end, continuing on-pitch spectacle is guaranteed.

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