Even seasoned observers of Turkish football might have a double-take when they look at the current table. Sure, Galatasaray AŞ top the rankings, but who are that team level on points with them?
Antalyaspor finished 15th in the Super League last season, yet after a major summer refit which saw 13 players leave and almost as many arrive, Mehmet Özdilek's side are purring. "We launched a rebuilding process at the end of last term, established a new playing system and picked players that were compatible with it," the coach told UEFA.com. "The newcomers adapted quickly on and off the pitch, creating harmony with the players we already had. That has resulted in our quick rise."
The club from Turkey's south-west coast are anchored by 35-year-old former Fenerbahçe SK centre-back Deniz Barış, with Super League journeymen İbrahim Dağaşan and Uğur İnceman the workhorses in midfield. Lamine Diarra, signed from FK Partizan, provides creativity along with former Manisaspor man Isaac Promise and the similarly pacy Ismaïl Aissati – recruited from AFC Ajax – while Brazilian Tita offers a threat from the left for a team that likes possession and breaks fast.
Antalyaspor have proved their credentials with some marquee results, like the 3-1 win at Fenerbahçe on 29 October that ended a run of 47 unbeaten home league games for the Yellow Canaries, swiftly followed by a 2-1 home victory over Trabzonspor AŞ. Talk of European qualification is already in the air, though Özdilek is not getting carried away. "We know that staying at the top is harder than getting there," the 46-year-old explained. "We have the experience and class to maintain our current position, though."
Having replaced Jozef Jarabinský as coach six matches into the 2008/09 campaign, Özdilek has overseen one of Antalyaspor's longest uninterrupted stretches in Turkey's elite division. However, he is still mostly remembered as a player for Beşiktaş JK, with whom he won four titles during a 13-year spell (387 league appearances, 13 goals), and where his stylish midfield play earned comparisons with Belgian Enzo Scifo – he was nicknamed 'Scifo Mehmet'.
After retiring in 2001, Özdilek went to England for a crash course in management, taking the opportunity to watch Manchester United FC boss Sir Alex Ferguson and the late Sir Bobby Robson – then at Newcastle United FC – at close quarters. However, his work in Turkey – first with Malatyaspor, now with Antalyaspor – has taught him a different set of skills: Antalyaspor's occasionally shaky finances have compelled him to specialise in achieving mid-table finishes with players mostly signed as free agents.
Not that he has any complaints. "Since my first day at the club, our president and board have believed in our projects and ensured a healthy working environment for us," the 31-times former international said. "They are striving to make Antalyaspor a stronger club financially, while we focus on sporting targets." Certainly, the powers-that-be have shown patience with Özdilek and his charges, even when they flirted with relegation last season, and that may well be paying off.
"Consistency is a key element for success in football and it's not only about the coaching staff," Özdilek concluded. "Continuity with the board and the squad are very important as well. Nevertheless, that alone cannot explain our success. Planning and making the right decisions about transfers; the economic growth of the club; building facilities and developing the youth set-up are all essential too."
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