For the past few weeks, Turkish women’s volleyball teams have been the central attention of the European volleyball community not only thanks to the footprints of the strong transfers acquired at the beginning of the season but also to the strong results that came along with high quality players featuring in the Turkish League. Several critics all over Europe including this column have cited concerns of volleyball being converted from a competitive sport to a lucrative business at the caprice of Fenerbahce Acıbadem and the other blockbuster hevay budgeted teams. Ironically enough, there is still plenty of match evidence that competition and sports still prevail at the end.

Last year, Fenerbahce marched to the Champions League final pretty easily without a single defeat and featured as a heavy favorite against a comparatively lower-budgeted volleyball legend Foppapedretti Bergamo. The result showed a different case, though. The sides that managed to stay as a team throughout the match captured the title. Now most of the games we watched in this season shows the same. Be it million dollars or more, volleyball has an inherent way of rewarding the team that makes more than the sum of its parts when you collect each individual.

Vakifbank Gunes Sigorta faced their eternal demons Fenerbahce Acibadem a couple of weeks ago in a Turkish League derby just a few days after a big win over Eczacibasi in the first leg of the Champions League 6th playoffs. Obviously, this game was really tough for Vakif Gunes considering the physical toll on their body after the Eczacibasi game and the mindset they have to deal with as they go back and forth in a vicious circle of Turkish and European matches. They have a solid game plan for each game and they are able to adapt it to every competitor they face. On top of all, Guidetti is a great tactician and after three years the girls really trust his skills as a coach and have fun working with him. Guidetti probably had already memorized how Fenerbahce plays in the Turkish League. Three foreigners had never changed until that game: Skowronska, Osmokrovic and Sokolova. However, this time after Tokatlioglu’s recovery, she was replacing Skowronska as the opposite and Furst got to play after a very long time. Without Furst, Fenerbahce was playing as if they had no middle blocker in the front row when either Ergul Avci or Ipek Soroglu was in the game. After the captain Cigdem Rasna’s injury, Fenerbahce had big gaps in the middle. Now that gap could have been finally filled by the German star, who was opted out for months by Ze Roberto. Vakifbank still served really well over and around Sokolova and Osmokrovic breaking away the reception control of the two of the most complete players of all time. Plus it is now a widespread known fact that Sokolova is not content with playing Aydemir. Most of the sets the Russian star gets at the back row do not even have the sufficient height to hit over the net but in the best case scenario to hardly tip. Sokolova’s face when Aydemir sent the ball over the antenna in a quick slide attempt was self-explanatory. Sokolova’s discontent with Aydemir as her setter is evident all over the place but the current rumors about the Russian player’s intentional miss-hits just because she is not happy with the sets, I believe, are merely unreasonable. The careful audience would recall how Gamova was each time lifting her point finger up after Aydemir’s sets trying to ask her to set higher balls. These were all advantages of Vakif Gunes. Guidetti and his pupils exploited them pretty well. Fenerbahce, on the other hand, was as disorganized as they could have ever been. Reception was a mess and sets were average. All they had were their tricky floating serves and experienced first class hitters who can kill any ball at any time. We should give credits to Nikolic who came a long way from an inconsistent outside hitter to a player whom you can rely on both in attack and defense. However, Fenerbahce was able to demolish the reception dam from time to time and that made the difference. Because Fenerbahce has more options in attack compared to their rivals, Vakif Gunes has to pass well. When they can’t pass well, Poljak is a dead weapon due to the lack of experience and inconsistency of her setters to convert bad passes to good sets. So Nikolic and Glinka become all they have and Fenerbahce then doesn’t have much hard time in organizing their block and defense coordination, which was one of the main reasons why they conceded the match in 5 sets.

Vakif Gunes had another game for them in three days and this time the hurdle was Eczacibasi Vitra. The team in orange and white started on fire looking to capitalize the three sets and the golden set. However, Eczacibasi just stopped after they won the first two sets. There is simply one reason why Eczacibasi lost this game: the absence of the libero Gulden Kayalar. The youngster Serpil Ersari, Guidetti’s former player at Vakif Gunes, had a lot of difficulty in receiving the tricky serves of Vakif Gunes. Cleverly enough, Guidetti knew how much pressure Ersari would be under and directed all of his players to serve over her. Following a huge blow in the third set, Eczacibasi’s defense was rotten and gone. No one started to function well and the poetic game of first two sets was replaced by a rush and a relentless state of panic. Probably because Eczacibasi players do not trust their fellow young libero, they surrendered their mindset immediately when she started to make mistakes. The explanations by Micelli and the manager Nalan Ural at the end of the game pointing out to Kayalar’s absence and thus indirectly blaming Ersari were by all means unfortunate. It is obvious how Eczacibasi was a huge favorite to win if Kayalar weren’t injured but a big and champion team should not rely on one player and the Turkish League and Turkish Cup still go on for Eczacibasi so such public acts of blame are unhealthy for the future of the team. With that being said, Vakifbank Gunes Sigorta Turk Telekom showed guts till the end of the match to come back from two-sets-to-love and 8-11 in the 5th set with a remarkable team play and determination. Without a doubt, they deserved to be in the Final Four not just because they still have not been beaten in the European arena this season but also because they are the one team that inspires people how matches are won tip-to-toe fighting for every point.

The elite Final Four is on Saturday and it will feature the Vakif Gunes vs. Fenerbahce showdown in the second semi finals. Fenerbahce will go out on the court with a perfect armament of five worldwide stars in their starting six and they are, despite their ill play up to now, the heavy favorites to win. Yet we should bear in mind how Vakif Gunes was written off by everyone at the beginning of the season but now that they are the team to beat.

Murat N. Colakoglu