Solid-defending Tarzans are flying high in the standings

It is not all about the big four - the Istanbul trio and Trabzonspor - in the Spor Toto Super League. With a tremendous eight-week unbeaten run and a defense that is so tough to break, Manisaspor appears as the hottest team in the league and deserves more attention

Every now and again a surprise team comes along and flies high in the Spor Toto Super League. This year, for now at least, it is Manisaspor.

The Aegean side rose to the third spot in its standings following Trabzonspor’s slump against Beşiktaş. Its rise is definitely a big surprise, but for those who were watching close, the Tarzans did not come out of the blue.

Manisaspor, whose odd nickname comes from local environmental activist Ahmet “Tarzan of Manisa” Bedevi, is the team with the best form in the standings. In the last six weeks, the team was unbeaten with four wins and two draws.

The team is also on an eight-game unbeaten record ongoing on for two months, the longest in the league.

Looking closely, Manisaspor’s squad is not one to be underestimated. Most of its squad was unchanged from last year, which is quite unseen in Turkey. Nigerian forward Isaac Promise, who is leading the team with four goals and Brazilian attacker Kahe are two players well accustomed to Turkish football, each playing in the division for seven and five seasons respectively.

In addition to the duo, midfielder Joshua Simpson and former Turkey top-scorer Ariza Makukula shoulder the team’s attacking duties. Frankly, scoring is not Manisaspor’s main weapon. They have only 13 goals in 12 matches - only three teams have scored less. However, Manisaspor excel in defense, only letting in eight goals, the best in the division.

It should be mentioned that with a squad remaining largely unchanged, the main difference has been the coach. Kemal Özdeş, a former U-19 and U-21 national football team coach, took over Manisaspor earlier this summer and turned the team to a solid and winning team. It let in three goals every two games last season and managed to turn everything upside down. That was not down to the personnel change on the pitch, since only a few members have changed, right back Jerry Akaminko from Ghana and center back Michael Klukowski from Poland. So it is apparently down to Özdeş.

Özdeş, having his first head coach experience apart from a six-week caretaking duty at Konyaspor in 2004 deserves the praise. Most of his Super League experience stems from being a long-time assistant of Ersun Yanal, who led Manisaspor to its most successful periods in the last decade. With Yanal, the team enjoyed a flying start of nine unbeaten matches to top the standings in 2006, but suffered an agonizing fall and managed barely to survive in the league. Yanal is known for his all-out attacking style. His mentality won him successful but short-lived spells at Ankaragücü (finishing fourth in 2002), Gençlerbirliği (finishing third in 2003) and Trabzonspor (third in 2009). He was then appointed the national football team manager, which ended prematurely after a feud with legendary striker Hakan Şükür.

One can only hope Özdeş might enjoy a long and illustrious career, which seems to take off like his former master. Their playing mentality might seem starkly different from each other, but both share a wisdom that is hard to find in Turkish football.

When asked if his team would play for bigger achievements now, Özdeş was calm.

“[Against Kayserispor] We were dominant when we had the possession but we were forced to pull our defensive line to the center of our area. And as a whole we defended well,” he said. “We take it one game at a time. We are going forward, improving all the time. I hope we do well at the end of the year.”

While not exactly presenting goal feast in their games, Manisaspor seems to be learning know how to win. Now a bigger challenge will be on the way as they become the team to beat. The Tarzans’ - and Özdeş’s – path will be drawn on the way they cope with the pressure.

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