Soviet Surge Part 8 | Galatasaray #3: First Taste of the Champions League

Heading into the summer of 2023, Russian manager Vladimir Latunov was enjoying a growing reputation having just wrapped up consecutive titles, adding the Turkish league to the Polish crown he’d won with Legia.

He spent the morning after celebrating the title with his Galatasaray players scouring the available managerial roles as he considered whether to stick with the Turkish side or look for new opportunities in another Eastern European nation. There were a lot of roles up for grabs, across nations like Belarus, Croatia, Hungary, Slovenia, Serbia and his homeland Russia.

But, with Galatasaray heading into the Champions League, he decided this was a good time to show a bit of loyalty. That meant plenty of work was afoot in the summer. The new season started with Latunov beginning his Continental Pro coaching course and setting about rebuilding his squad.

That was partly caused by the departure of key striker Mbaye Diagne, who refused to sign a new contract after his 46 goal campaign in 2022/23 and joined Marseille, and retiring club stalwart Fernando Muslera.

A key component in the player search was players of good quality but also Turkish to meet the requirement of at least five Turks in any league matchday squad. The additions began with adding much-needed experience in half-Turkish midfielder Ilkay Gundogan, who arrived on a free from Man City. Two more Turkish players saw Abdulkadir Omur arrive for £10 million from Trabzonspor and backup midfielder Orkan Kokcu.

Away from the Turks, Latunov added some strength at centre-back in German Jordan Torunarigha on a free transfer, a bit of flair in wide positions by loaning in Liverpool wonderkid winger Sávio, and another exciting young midfielder in Bulgarian Daniel Nachev for just £4.6 million.

The new season began with more silverware with a 3-1 win over Besaksehir in the Turkish Super Cup thanks to goals from the front three, Berkay Ozcan, Nahuel Ferreyra, who was stepping into Diagne’s boots, and debutant Abdulkadir.

First taste of the Champions League

Latunov got his first taste of Champions League football with a qualifier tie against Celtic, who were packed with Premier League castoffs like Steven Bergwijn, Fred, Marcos Alonso and Harry Winks. Galatasaray started the first leg poorly but pulled themselves level to earn a 1-1 draw, but were excellent in the second game in Glasgow with Ferreyra scoring a first-half brace to seize control of the tie. Bergwijn scored in the first minute after the break then Celtic equalised on 80 minutes, but Galatasaray held on for away goals win to reach the group stage.

Title defence begins

Ferreyra scored again with the only goal in the season opener at Yeni Malatyaspor, then was one of four first-half scorers in a 5-0 thumping of Altay in the first home game, and kept up a great start with a hat-trick in a 3-1 win at Kayserispor and their horrendous yellow and pink kit. The Argentinian striker has the ability to become a really top player.

A first draw of the season then a couple more wins followed, before a trip Basaksehir. The hosts scored with their first shot in the 17th minute and doubled the lead on 35 minutes. Latunov flew into a rage and threw a water bottle at the lads at the break, which inspired an amazing comeback with goals from Abdulkadir, Berkay and an own goal sealing a 3-2 win. They then ran riot at fifth-placed Alanyaspor, who had a player sent off after 27 minutes, with a 5-0 battering.

Abdulkadir was enjoying a great start to life with Galatasaray, despite the weird message below, and continued that with a brace that took him to six goals in 11 games in a 3-0 win at Gaziantep, which racked up seven consecutive league wins and nine in all competitions. That continued with Victor Kovalenko, playing in a more advanced position, and Orkun scoring sensational hat-tricks in a 7-0 win over Hatayspor.

Two huge Istanbul away days

Three of the trickiest games of the season followed, beginning with two Istanbul derbies in early December. Ferreyra came off the bench to nick a 1-1 draw in a pretty drab game at sixth-placed Fenerbahce before travelling to second-placed Besiktas. Marin Petkov, playing from the right, put Galatasaray ahead with an absolute screamer after half an hour and Besiktas offered nothing until academy product right-back Ali Bozdag got sent off on 82 minutes for one of the worst tackles you’ll ever see! But Latunov went super defensive and held on for a huge 1-0 win.

Two simple wins setup another big game at home to third-placed Trabzonspor. This time Ferreyra stepped up to open the scoring on 66 minutes then scored a sensational solo second with seven minutes remaining and Nachev wrapped up a dominant 3-0 win. That extended the unbeaten run to 17 games, the unbeaten home run to 30, and extended the lead over Besiktas to 11 points.

That was celebreated by putting five past Konyaspor in the first half of an away game, with Abdulkadir scoring twice… and a 5-1 win. Galatasaray signed off 2023 with Orkun scoring a screamer to open the scoring at home to Rizespor, then Erencan bagged a second half hat-trick to end the year with aplomb.

That took Galatasaray 14 points clear at the top at the half-way point of the Turkish Super League, still unbeaten with 52 goals scored and only eight conceded.

Champions League group stage

Galatasaray were lucky to be drawn into the easiest group available, but their task was still very tough. Considering other groups contained Bayern and Real Madrid, Man City and Juventus, Chelsea and Barcelona, and Liverpool and Inter, a group of Napoli, Benfica and Leverkusen could be seen as more favourable.

And Latunov’s first Champions League proper game was away to Leverkuse. The home team went ahead with a shocking penalty decision two minutes into the second half, went on to win 2-0 and Savio had an absolute shocker of a debut.

His first home game was Benfica and Abdulkadir opened the scoring with a brilliant free-kick only for Rafa to equalise two minutes later. But Petkov raced through to coolly finish the winner on 54 minutes to seal Latunov’s first win in Europe. Petkov, who’s been given the role of European starting striker, was at it again early in the next game at home to Napoli then Nachev curled in a free-kick. Victor Osimhen got them back into it before goals from Emin and another from Petkov wrapped up a brilliant 4-2 win.

Napoli returned the favour with a 3-0 thrashing in Naples, then Leverkusen came to town and were unlucky to be held to a 1-1 draw. That put Galatasaray second and teed up a final day decider at group toppers Benfica. But too many players didn’t show up – namely the inconsistent Berkay – and Benfica eased to a 2-1 win. Leverkusen beat Napoli, which sent Galatasaray into the Europa League.

Join us next time to discover if Vladimir Latunov wraps up a second Turkish title and how he fares dropping into the Europa League. And, he may need to consider the next leg of his Soviet Surge…

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