Fenerbahce is looking to prolong its most successful foray into the UEFA Europa League to date by winning against Italian Lazio at home on Thursday and thus securing a solid advantage in the second leg on the Serie A powerhouse's home pitch.
The Yellow Canaries, as the club is affectionately known in its hometown of Istanbul, have for the first time advanced to the quarterfinals of the second-most prestigious international competition in Europe. Defeating an Italian giant and advancing to the final four will mean yet another record for Fenerbahce. The Turkish club edged first Belarusian side BATE Borisov and Czech club Plzen 0-1 and 1-1 to get to where it is today.
However, Fenerbahce will have to work hard to advance, as its Italian rivals will not be pushovers. Lazio is headed up by Czech national Libor Kozak, the competition's most prolific striker. Lazio beat German side VfB Stuttgart 0-2 away and 3-1 at home, with a hat trick by Kozak, in the round of 16 to get to the quarterfinals.
Aside from having more UEFA experience than Fenerbahce, the Italian powerhouse has not lost a single match this tournament, with an impressive eight wins and just four draws to its name so far. Fenerbahce will be looking to break this team's winning streak on Thursday.
Leaders to victory
The Canaries will be fighting Lazio with intense mental preparation. “We have been watching Lazio since we drew them. We watched everything, including the group matches and the elimination matches,” Fenerbahce coach Aykut Kocaman stated. “The team is representative of typical Italian football,” he stated.
Fenerbahce has come to Europa's round of eight for the first time in the Turkish club's history. This means that every match won sets a new record for Fenerbahce in the international competition and prestige.
The Istanbul club is not a complete stranger to European soil. Fenerbahce made it as far as the quarters of the UEFA Champions League in 2007-08, where the team ended up losing to English team Chelsea. Surely that experience will help the Yellow Canaries reach a UEFA semifinal for the first time.
“So long as there are no outside circumstances, I see the chances being equal. I think these will be two matches played to the last breath. The first match's score will secure the advantage,” Kocaman explained.
However, Lazio coach Vladimir Petkovic may have different ideas. Although the Biancocelesti, as the Italian side is popularly called, has never met Fener face-to-face, its coach has had several encounters.
He briefly trained small-time Turkish club Samsunspor when the team managed a 0-0 draw at Fener's Sukru Saracoglu Stadium in 2011. Petkovic was also in charge of a BSC Young Boys squad that eliminated Fenerbahce from the 2010-11 Champions League.
Silence of the fans
The second leg at Lazio's home turf of Stadio Olimpico on April 11 will be behind closed doors due to unruly behavior on the part of the Italian team's considerable fan following. Without the home-crowd support so many teams count on, Lazio is losing an important edge over Fenerbahce.
Thus, the Turkish side stands a good chance of advancing against the Italian powerhouse if it comes away from leg one with an advantage.
Besides, with Fenerbahce fans' recent track record, the club is more than comfortable playing in an empty house. The Canaries managed a 1-0 win against Belarusian club BATE Borisov without fans at home in the round of 32 this year, and tied up Plzen 1-1 in the round of 16 soon after, again without the home crowd at Sukru Saracoglu Stadium in Kadikoy.
“It is not easy to reach our goals without our fans. We have played two matches without fans and suffered from it, but now we will be reunited,” Fenerbahce's Nigeria defender Joseph Yobo recalled during an interview on Fenerbahce's FB TV channel.
“If we can reflect that great force on the pitch, I think we will return from the first match with an advantage,” he added, speaking to the importance support has for the players.
Divide and conquer
Another piece of prestige Fenerbahce has the potential to snatch is a win in its first ever match against Lazio. The defeat of an Italian giant would be a definite boon to the Turkish club's international reputation.
Fenerbahce has more than just Europa honors to worry about. Currently runner-up in the Spor Toto Super League, the club is desperate to overcome archrival Galatasaray, who is clinging fast to the leadership position with just a few matches left to go.
The Canaries are also looking forward to the Ziraat Turkish Cup semifinal, which begins not too far away on April 17.
Fenerbahce may be playing on three fronts, but that is unlikely to interrupt the club's focus on such a high-profile match. “This is definitely a historic match for us and for our team,” Yobo said.
As a team that plays exceptionally well under pressure, Fenerbahce has every capability to divide its attention and knock out one match at a time. The club is certainly hoping to do the same with Lazio on Thursday.
The first ever Fenerbahce-Lazio match will kick off at 10:05 p.m. The historic game will be officiated by Scottish referee William Collum, aided by Martin Cryans and William Conquer. Alan Mulvanny is the fourth official.