St Johnstone’s return to European football for more than a decade could have handed them a more glamorous tie in the second qualifying round of the UEFA Europa League than Turkish side Eskişehirspor.
The Anatolian team are some way off being a powerhouse of Turkish football, but still boast a mix of youth and experience which gives bookmakers cause to make St Johnstone’s opponents odds-on favourites to progress.
While the footballing summer in Scotland has been wrought with controversy over the Rangers Newco debacle, Turkish football has seen a conclusion to last year’s match-fixing scandal, but controversy continued with clubs failing to meet license obligations to compete in Europe.
And with the Turkish Football Federation tinkering with the league format for a second successive season, Trabzonspor still lay claim to the 2010-11 championship on the basis of criminal court cases, despite the TFF ruling that there was no match-fixing on the pitch.
Eskişehirspor’s return to European for the first time since the mid-1970s came as fourth-placed Beşiktaş were handed a ban by UEFA, upheld by the Court of Arbitration for Sport last month, and the hosts for Thursday’s clash are keen to take full advantage of their fortunate position.
The central Anatolian side, who recently enjoyed a 1-1 draw with Eredivisie side AZ Alkmaar and 6-1 win over Saudi Arabian side Al-Ettifaq in pre-season, have boosted their squad over the summer with a number of bargain signings including former West Ham United goalkeeper Ruud Boffin, whose only game for the club was in a 1-1 draw against Blackburn Rovers in December 2010.
Polish international winger Patryk Małecki, who was voted “revelation of the year” in 2009 after a strong season with Wisła Kraków, and Rapid Vienna striker Atdhe Nuhiu both joined on loan.
While the vast majority of Eskişehirspor’s squad may be unfamiliar to Saints fans, Diomansy Kamara should ring a bell after seven seasons in British football, including a loan spell with Celtic in 2010.
The Senegalese striker made the perfect start to life in Turkey with 15 goals in all competitions as he finished as the team’s top goalscorer ahead of Turkish youngster Batuhan Karadeniz.
Homegrown central defender Servet Çetin has also joined as a free agent after champions Galatasaray declined to negotiate a new contact.
Çetin boasts vast European experience with Denizlispor, Fenerbahçe and Galatasaray, and was an integral part of Turkey’s Euro 2008 team which lost to Germany in the semi-finals, and will boost the Eskişehirspor defence alongside Ediz Bahtiyaroğlu.
The Es-Es also boast a number of foreign internationalists including Portuguese midfielder Pelé, Brazilian wingback Dedê, and defender Diego Ângelo, as well as former Beşiktaş and Sporting versatile midfielder Rodrigo Tello.
If Eskişehirspor’s squad, at least on paper, poses problems for Steve Lomas’ side so too will the weather.
With Turkey renowned for its dry, hot summers, it is a far cry from the persistent rain which has dominated our summer so far.
At the forefront of modern-day Turkish industrialism, Eskişehir is not the typical summer tourist destination for Scots, but with temperatures of up to 33 celsius expected in the city this week, the open nature of the Eskişehir Atatürk Stadı won’t do much to protect St Johnstone from a proper dose of summer sun when they arrive from Edinburgh.
Eskişehirspor will roll out the red carpet for their Scottish visitors, but are expected to field a strong, albeit inexperienced side in the first leg, with their new signings Boffin and Çetin likely to go straight into the starting XI.
As was the case against Alkmaar, with both Kamara and Karadeniz expected to feature up front in a 4-5-1 or 4-3-3 formation with Mehmet Güren (former Manisaspor midfielder), Serol Demirhan (former Ankaragücü winger), Małecki are all pushing for a start.
It’s not all doom and gloom for Lomas’ side though as Eskişehirspor scored the fewest goals of the top 10 Sportoto Super League clubs year, amassing just 18 goals in their 17 home matches.
This gives St Johnstone a good chance of sneaking a result ahead of the return leg.
Gareth Llewellyn is a Turkish football expert and works as the deputy editor of The Journal.
You can follow Gareth on Twitter.
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