Turkey qualified for the European U19 Championships at the expense of Germany after a confident and disciplined performance from the Anatolian side.
This was an all or nothing clash for both sides as they were locked on points having each thrashed the two other teams in their pool, Hungary and Macedonia. However, although the tie was being staged in Turkey (on what looked like a training ground pitch), Germany had the goal difference advantage, and therefore knew a draw here would be good enough to take them through to the eight-team European U19 Championships tournament in Romania next month (for which the hosts, Belgium, Serbia, Ireland, Greece, and the Czech Republic had already qualified.
Germany, coached by former Liverpool defender Christian Ziege, could count on the form of BVB man Moritz Leitner coming into this game – the diminutive 18-year-old midfielder boasted a goals to games ratio of four to two. Added to that, Mainz strikers Eric Drum and Shawn Parker had also bagged braces against Hungary and Macedonia respectively, and Gladbach’s Bundesliga hero, Marc-André ter Stegen, was yet to concede a goal in the so-called Elite Round of qualifying. Personnel-wise, perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this game was whether we’d see the man who turned down the chance to represent Turkey in favour of playing for Germany, Wolfsburg midfielder Tolga Ciğerci.
The Turkish U19 side, coached by Kemal Özdeş, had also been using this round of the qualifying process to fill their boots. Their man to watch was Gaziantepspor striker Muhammet Demir, who got a hat-trick in the game against Macedonia, followed up a few days later with a brace against Hungary. The Turks reached the U19 final in 2004, losing 1-0 to Spain: Germany, meanwhile, banished the memory of losing to the same opponents in 2002 by winning the Championships in 2008, beating Italy 3-1. They made no changes from their last game, whereas Turkey made two, Özdeş opting for a more negative system.
The home side bossed the ball in the early stages, looking to release Okan Alkan down the right whenever possible. Germany pressed high but patiently, offering little in terms of doing something with the ball save for Stuttgart centre-back Antonio Rüdiger’s Lucio-esque attempts to dribble the ball out from the back. Gradually, the Turks began to settle, oozing confidence and class, and keeping Germany pinned back.
When the visitors finally got on the ball, they had the intelligence to calm things down, knocking it about aimlessly at the back and drawing the Turks on. The tactic worked initially – Rüdiger zoomed out into the central space left by the stretched Turkish banks, poked a through-ball towards the D for Parker and Leitner, thereby forcing Furkan Şeker into a foul on the edge of the box (the defender got a yellow card for his troubles too). After a bit of handbags, however, the Dortmund youngster sailed the dangerously located set-piece well over the bar.
Nevertheless, Germany still looked nervier than their hosts, and more high-pressing from the Turks forced ter Stegen into an utterly needless sliced pass upfield. Turkey were confident and attack-minded down both flanks, sharing the burden between their left and right-sided players, all the while wearing their rivals down. But whenever Rüdiger got on the ball, things happened. His leggy strides left red-shirted opponents in his dust, and the subsequent through-passes were persistently incisive.
This tactic epitomised the difference in either side’s play inside the opening ten minutes – Turkey playing triangles, doing things patiently; Germany just bulldozing their way through their opponents when the opportunity presented itself. And it made sense for them to do that… In the 11th minute, Leitner peeled clear inside the box. Gigantic centre-back Sezer Özmen, standing on the wrong side of his man, hauled the midfielder down, and a penalty was awarded! Leitner stood up to take it after Özmen joined Şeker in the book, but his right-footed effort crashed back off the post and out!
The jubilant Turks had a set-play of their own moments later, but nominated free-kick taker Sefa Akın Basibüyük wastefully curled a right-footed effort from the left channel straight into the arms of ter Stegen. This of course also handed possession back over to the Germans, and they were beginning to see far more of the ball. Still playing teasing triangles among the centre-backs and goalkeeper, Turkey began to sit off a bit more, letting them do it as it was in a harmless area of the pitch. When Germany did go forward, Leitner was now a man possessed, at the heart of everything good and bad (making sometimes unstoppable jinxes, but falling on the floor far too often).
But Turkey reasserted their dominance in some style in the 22nd minute, Demir winning a free-kick just off the D from Germany captain Matthias Zimmermann. He made the Karlsruher midfielder pay dearly, scoring with the set-piece via an unstoppable right-footed strike. The home side now tried to take the sting out of the game, themselves passing aimlessly on the edge of their own box, forcing Germany to keep seven or eight players camped in Turkey’s half and pressing the ball in packs of three. The yellow cards were coming thick and fast at this point, with Marvin Plattenhardt, Servan Taştan and Engin Bekdemir all finding their way into the book within moments of one another (five bookings were dished out overall between the fifth and 28th minute).
With Turkey now unwilling to fly forward willy-nilly, the ball was Germany’s to use. Unsurprisingly, the home side’s midfield was sitting far deeper, Demir ploughing something of a lone furrow around the halfway mark. Still, he’d seen more action than poor old Parker, who was starved of service, but also weak with his head when it came to aerial duels. But as the half-hour mark came and went, the bridge between Germany’s midfield and attack was becoming sturdier. Both centre-midfielders were now bolting into or towards the box where possible, giving the likes of Nico Schulz more killer-ball passing options. And Zimmermann and Reinhold Yabo were also beginning to show more intent to instigate things further back in the midfield too, collecting from the defenders rather than standing by as Rüdiger whizzed past them.
During the Turkish restarts, Ziege gave another demonstration of his tactical inventiveness. He instructed Parker to man-mark the left-sided centre-back when the opposition started short from the back. This forced the other Turkish centre-back, Şeker, to bring the ball out and make a pass – something he wasn’t particularly brilliant at doing. Setting themselves up nicely in their own half to counter this in the 35th minute, Germany won the ball, released Leitner to run sideways from the right into the corridor between midfield and defence, and he then played a diagonal through-pass between the centre-backs for Schulz. The Hertha Berlin youngster had made a boomerang run around the left-back, finishing it near the six-yard-box. Alas, his attempt to play a square with the ball was blocked, and the two subsequent corners which followed the Turkish clearance wasted.
But for all the plaudits Ziege gets for this counter-attacking idea, he also deserves some criticism because his full-backs were far too negative throughout the first half. Whereas Turkey’s flew forward and joined in the attack regularly (quite often just acting as a decoy or there to help make a one-two), Germany’s didn’t get upfield anywhere near often enough; making their centrally-created moves quite easily to marshal, save for the few spectacular moments players like Leitner had conjured.
Yet as half time neared, Germany did have more of an edge about them when they had the ball in the final-third due to Schulz, who’d finally woken up. A silky dribbler capable of the little-toe-while-looking-the-other-way type pass, the only drawback to him and Leitner’s new-found double act was their willingness to make one champagne pass too many. None of this, unsurprisingly, involved Parker, and the half’s regulation time finished with him trying to trap and then dribble a ball down the right strip of chalk, only to fail miserably. Another of German’y quiet players, Markus Mendler, also had no such luck with the last bit of action in the injury time that followed – a clever run similar to the one attempted by Schulz earlier in the half ruined by his poor reading of the line (the execution on the releasing pass, again by Leitner, was superb).
The Germans started the second half with real urgency, passing it about from kick-off with zip, both centre-midfielders looking to bob into space to instigate something as soon as possible. Leitner did things a bit too hurriedly in the 47th minute, however, leaving a needless and dangerous leg in a challenge he had no hope of winning. He became the sixth man in the Romanian referee’s book. Two minutes later, his side nearly fell 2-0 behind – Schulz tamely lost a header to a more determined Kamil Ahmet Cörekçi, Rüdiger misjudged the bounce that followed, and although Demir then took the loose ball on the D and seemingly having a one on one chance with it, his trap allowed Everton’s Shkodran Mustafi to zoom across. I hasten to add, Demir did help the Premier League man clear the danger thanks to his ambitious attempt at a Gazza-against-Scotland-in-EURO ’96 style keepy-uppy.
In spite of this chance, it was all Germany at the start of the half, but, it was all Germany in areas of the pitch Turkey were quite content to let it be all Germany. Nevertheless, Ziege was watching his starlets carve out some openings, and the away side’s best chance to pepper Ömer Kahveci’s goal came in the 54th minute – only for Leitner to waste the free-kick. Turkey countered from this chance, Alkan bringing it to the halfway line, and after finding himself surrounded, performing a fantastic pirouette to engineer space and thread a through-ball down the wing for Bekdemir to run on to (the German defence managed to gallop back in time to cut the opportunity out). Germany’s own little wizard, Leitner, worked his own brand of magic two minutes later, jinxing his way towards the D, releasing Parker for a first-time strike just inside the box, only for Sefa Akın Basibüyük to get across and hoof the ball away to safety (namely, another underhit Leitner corner-kick).
We hadn’t even reached the hour mark, but save for Leitner, Germany looked tired. Turkey began to see more of the ball, and the away side’s attempts at stopping them became sloppier – see Zimmermann in the 58th minute, conceding a needless free-kick which ter Stegen did well to hold on to. But the goalkeeper himself was having a poor game – mainly due to his atrocious kicking. Turkey used the ball well whenever they had it, looking to play not overly risky long diagonals to their widemen, tiring Germany even more in the process. Bekdemir was revelling in his side’s superiority, hungry to get the ball all over the pitch, and spreading it with confidence.
Ziege made a change in the 61st minute, bringing on Durm for the tiring, wound-up and yellow-carded Leitner. The tall Mainz striker joined his equally gangly club colleague up front, suggesting that we might see Ziege’s side playing some more direct football to overcome their fatigue. With Bekdemir permanently stationed deeper in the midfield, however, this initially looked to further enhance Turkey’s domination of both space and possession in the centre of the pitch.
After seeing his side’s fortunes remain unchanged, Ziege elected to bring on Ciğerci in the 70th minute for the ineffectual Liverpool player Stephen Sama. A minute later, Turkish attacking prodigy Demir was replaced, the few fans in the *stadium* serenading him with a little ditty as he trudged off to be replaced by Ali Dere. Because Ciğerci is a midfielder, Zimmermann moved to right-back, thereby allowing Ciğerci to position himself in the centre of the midfield with a license to instigate something, anything. The Wolfsburg man certainly added a touch of class to the midfield, but it was his sparring partner, Yabo, who played the killer through-ball in the 75th minute. All Mendler had to do was let it roll across his body onto his right foot and place the shot where he pleased, but he hit it first-time awkwardly with his left foot, blazing it high and wide.
Former Portsmouth man Nadir Çiftçi replaced the hard-working Alkan in the 75th minute (getting into the swing of things by earning himself a booking one minute later), while Bekdemir and Yabo were replaced by Burakcan Kunt and Julian Wiessmeier respectively not long after. Kunt joined Çiftçi up front, as Özdeş deployed his energetic new strikers to hound Germany’s short restarts.
Truth be told, the visitors had done nothing in the second half, failing to play either long ball or passing football, and their only real chance being Mendler’s miss. But moments after Ali Dere zoomed down to the byline and crossed for Çiftçi to head at the post, Germany countered into acres of space. The stage was set for a heroic late equalizer, but Durm fell over the ‘keeper and fluffed his lines when one-on-one. Dere was rampant down the left wing for the short remainder of the game, making life even tougher for the clearly shattered German youngsters, and ensuring they didn’t get another chance on goal.
I wouldn’t put my money on the Turks to win the U19 Championships outright, but nevertheless, this was an accomplished performance against one of Europe’s most talented sides, and it could well be an omen.