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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 14 November 2018

Fenerbahce enter derby with Galatasaray amid chaotic start to the season

A manager sacked with the club hovering above the relegation zone and claims of "sabotage" from the owner contribute to troubled times at the Turkish giants

Fenerbahce fans set off flares during the Europa League soccer match against Anderlecht at the Constant Vanden Stock stadium. EPA
Fenerbahce fans set off flares during the Europa League soccer match against Anderlecht at the Constant Vanden Stock stadium. EPA

The wish-list reportedly drawn up by Fenerbahce for who they want as their new manager is a star-studded document. In a market where so many champion coaches are currently between jobs, clubs can indulge certain fantasies.

The Istanbul club have been linked over the past seven days with Zinedine Zidane, Arsene Wenger, Leonardo Jardim and Laurent Blanc. On the list is also former Al Ain coach, Zlatko Dalic, fresh from his silver medal with Croatia at the World Cup and still in that job.

Any candidate would be wise to look carefully, sceptically at Fenerbahce right now. There is the very real prospect that by the end of the weekend, as the Turkish Super Lig season completes its 11th matchday, they could find themselves in the relegation zone.

Fener, who won the last of their 28 Turkish championships in 2014, are 15th in the table, just a place and a point clear of the bottom three. And on Friday evening they go to Galatasaray, the champions and their chief rivals.

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Fenerbahce sacked the Dutchman Phillip Cocu as manager after last weekend’s 3-1 home defeat to Anakaragucu had left them with nine points from 10 matches, and Cocu on the losing side in half his league matches so far.

He had been in the job four months, his first managerial excursion abroad an experience he will choose to forget, and from now print in small letters between parentheses on his otherwise impressive resume.

The former midfielder, who was sacked on the eve of his 47th birthday, had, until August, some excellent coaching credentials: the knowhow acquired from 100 caps for the Netherlands, and as a cerebral and versatile mainstay of a Barcelona team in the late 1990s in which his teammates included Pep Guardiola and Luis Enrique.

Cocu’s start in coaching had also been stellar. After calling time on his playing career at Al Jazira in the UAE, he joined the staff of the Netherlands, was an assistant when Holland reached the 2010 World Cup final. He then took charge of the first team at PSV Eindhoven, where he had played, in the summer of 2013. His five years in that job yielded three Dutch Eredivisie titles.

Cocu, in other words, will be back in elite management, although the strains from his brief term at Fenerbahce may demand a period of recuperation.

He came to the Asian bank of the Bosphorus persuaded by the vision of a new president at Fenerbahce, Ali Koc, and imagined he could overcome the downsides, namely that compliance with Uefa’s financial fair-play guidelines meant having to balance his budget sensibly.

Cocu also saw that the squad leaned a little towards footballers of a certain age: captain and goalkeeper Volkan Demirel has just turned 37, former Liverpool defender Martin Skrtel and much-travelled Spain striker Roberto Soldado are 33, while French playmaker Mathieu Valbuena is a year older.

But Fenerbahce seemed to have done some sound business over the summer, sharpening the forward line with Andre Ayew and Islam Slimani, both of whom spent last season in the Premier League. The Brazilian midfielder, Jailson, 23, looked a good recruit.

The first target of the Koc and Cocu partnership, for Uefa Champions League football through the autumn was only narrowly missed, Fenerbahce losing their qualifying play-off against Benfica 2-1 on aggregate.

But the next target, a title challenge by last season's runners-up began to derail quickly, with three defeats on the trot after Cocu had overseen a win in his opening match against Bursapor.

Since coming back from a goal down to draw the derby against Besiktas in late September, Fenerbahce have scored just once in four league matches.

Then there were the bizarre conspiracy allegations, Koc declaring that some members of the club’s back-up coaching staff had "sabotaged" the plans of Cocu and his assistant Erwin Koeman.

How? The president told the club’s own television channel that tactical preparations had been deliberately leaked to opponents. Three members of staff were fired as a result, while Koc promised his “100 per cent backing” to Cocu.

That was less than three weeks ago. As Koc scours the managerial market, Koeman - brother of Ronaldo Koeman, the Holland head coach - is expected to take caretaker control for Friday’s highly-charged trip to Galatasaray, the most seismic fixture of the calendar.

He could also still be in charge for next week’s Europa League meeting with Anderlecht, where Fenerbahce have an opportunity to salvage some pride if the derby goes according to form.

Galatasaray, 12 places and 10 points ahead of their fierce rivals, have seldom approached this collision with such relish. They will go to the top of the table with a win.