On the day before Trabzonspor's game at Benfica this week, the Turkish club's coach Senol Gunes publicly named his starting XI for the match. It is a rare gesture in modern soccer, but it is easy to see where Gunes was coming from. The Champions League's qualifying rounds represent a rare and unpredictable situation, and especially given the current tumult in Turkey's domestic game, perhaps the coach's aim was to create clarity where there was disorder.
In this phase of games, a season can be over almost as soon as it's begun. Current Turkish champion Fenerbahce can attest to that, having been the shock victim of Switzerland's Young Boys at the same stage last year. It's an irony that one of the season's key games arrives at a moment when one is least prepared for it. Portuguese surprise package Braga benefitted too, flying past a scratch Celtic side that looked on the rare side of undercooked.
Portuguese daily A Bola wrote in the lead-up to the game that "this is where the new signings can start paying the club back." It had a point. A helping hand to the financial bounty of the Champions League group stages can go a long way to justifying a transfer fee, as Lisandro Lopez did in 2009, scoring four goals over Lyon's two-legged win over Anderlecht following his €24m arrival from Porto. Paradoxically, a coach would ideally like to stick with the tried-and-tested in circumstances where a team can't afford to fluff its lines. To expect telling contributions from players barely on first-name terms with new colleagues is optimistic at best; unreasonable, at worst.
The enduring 'getting-to-know-you' feel of the moment is clear in the way a few of the Portuguese dailies are still in the habit of calling Benfica's new Belgian signing Axel Witsel "Alex" - as O Jogo did even after Witsel's impressive cameo on Wednesday, with his mini-slalom opening the space for Nicolas Gaitan's superb second goal.
Benfica coach Jorge Jesus's restriction of marquee signing Witsel (recruited for $12.2 million from Standard Liege) and Nolito, the forward signed from Barcelona B, to the bench betrayed a degree of caution, although circumstance meant four debutants - goalkeeper Artur, defenders Ezequiel Garay and Emerson, plus winger Enzo Perez - all started anyway, even if stalwarts such as Luisao, Javi Garcia and Oscar Cardozo remained. Nolito's goal to break the deadlock in the final 20 minutes could be his own Lisandro moment. O Jogo wrote on Thursday that ". . . with the entrance of the Spaniard, the game changed from day to night," even if his coach (rather unfairly) chided his lack of understanding of Benfica's group ethic post-game.
Nolito could be forgiven for not being quite up to speed. Arriving almost three weeks before the opening league match, this tie demanded selection creativity, and inevitably saw a bit of a patchwork line-up. The only Portuguese player in Jesus's starting line-up, Ruben Amorim, was playing his first competitive match since January 16 at right-back. Amorim was replaced by Maxi Pereira in the 64th minute, who had arrived in Lisbon on Wednesday morning after his Copa America exertions.
Maxi is well known for exhibiting the stamina of a man with four lungs, but contributing to potentially the most important 25 minutes of Benfica's season some 12 hours after his return flight from South America touched down was hardy even by his standards. He won praise from Jesus for his "professionalism," as did Luisao, the captain whose agent conceded earlier in the week would like to speak to Paris Saint-Germain about the possibility of a move to the newly-flush French club.
Trabzon wishes it had only selection and preparation dilemmas to ponder. As Fenerbahce president Aziz Yilidirim was the most high-profile detainee of the match-fixing investigation which has gripped Turkey, Trabzon was initially assumed to be a potential beneficiary - having finished as runner-up to Fener only on goal difference. However, Trabzon president Sadri Sener was also arrested (and later released on bail), while Yildirim remains on remand. The postponement of the Super Cup between Fener and cup winner Besiktas (which returned the trophy to the Turkish Football Federation in protest at its own implication in the scandal) was followed on Monday by the postponement of the Super Lig season by a month, to September 9.
So while Jesus fretted about taking on such a big leap with little run-up, Gunes faced fielding four debutants of his own (Didier Zokora, Ondrej Celutska, Paulo Henrique and Adrian Mierzejewski) knowing that a Herculean effort to beat Benfica could be in vain, should the TFF find Trabzon guilty in its probe.
Underlining the same number of new boys for both sides is a misleading comparison, however. The heart of Gunes's side was ripped out this summer, with the dual midfield axis of Selcuk Inan and Ceyhun Gulselam making big-money switches to Galatasaray, and the departures of Jaja (to Al-Ahli) and Umut Bulut (Toulouse) removing two players who scored over a third of Trabzon's goals in 2010-11.
A comparison between Trabzon and Benfica's domestic rival (and Europa League semi-final conqueror) Braga is perhaps a valid one at this point. Like with the Europa League success of the club from northern Portugal, Trabzon's great season was only ever likely to precipitate the departure of its stars for bigger stages. Even outside the present environment of Turkish football, the magnitude of Trabzon's task against Benfica is clear. When its Huseyin Avni Aker Stadium was inaugurated in 1951, it held just 2,500 people. Eleven years later, Benfica had become double European champion.
The possible denouement of Trabzon's Champions League dream will roll out far from its base on the cusp of the Black Sea next Tuesday - the presence of the Youth Olympics in the now-28,000-capacity Huseyin means that Gunes and company will decamp to the Ataturk Olympic Stadium in Istanbul, over 600 miles away - as they attempt to turn up some heat on Benfica. Whether the current storm engulfing Turkish football will create a groundswell of nationalistic defiance behind Trabzon in the capital remains to be seen, but playing so far from home in a stadium three times the capacity of its own is far from ideal. A prize which Gunes and his men worked so hard for last season has almost slipped away already.