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Ba and Bilic revitalising Besiktas

Demba Ba snared a hat trick in Besiktas' Champions League qualifying win over Feyenoord, endearing him to the Istanbul supporters.

As Fenerbahce fans on both sides of the Bosphorus celebrated their 19th title in May, there was also jubilation on the European shore. Besiktas had qualified for the Champions League for the first time since a group-stage exit in 2009-10. This time, though, the circumstances were slightly different.

As Turkey's UEFA coefficients determine, the top side in the Turkish Super Lig heads straight to the Champions League group stages, with the second-placed team being plunged into qualification. But with Besiktas finishing third last season, a plot twist was required to see them into the competition. The long-running dispute between Fenerbahce and Turkey's footballing authorities over match-fixing allegations consigned the champions to a European ban, meaning that Galatasaray and Besiktas could start planning their trips around the Continent.

While Galatasaray have qualified directly for the group stage, Besiktas are navigating the treacherous course of the Champions League qualification rounds. Feyenoord, the starting point for much of the Netherlands' recent World Cup squad, provided the first challenge for the Eagles. A pair of away goals from Mustafa Pektemek and Kerim Frei silenced the noisy De Kuip, bringing Feyenoord back to Istanbul a goal down, without the advantage of away goals but facing a Besiktas side without a real home.

The renovation work on the old Ismet Inonu stadium, picturesquely placed on the European shore of the Bosphorus, has put Besiktas out on the street, so to speak. Last season saw the black and whites wandering between Kasimpasa's Erdogan Stadium and the vast Ataturk Olympic Stadium.

The former was used for most games and the latter for those that drew bigger crowds, and necessitated a bigger police presence. The Ataturk, located on the western extremity of the city, making for an arduous journey from almost anywhere in Istanbul, holds around 80,000 spectators. On Wednesday, before the roar of a capacity crowd, Besiktas dispatched Feyenoord 3-1, as the foundations for a new legend were put down.

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That legend came in the form of Demba Ba, as the summer signing slotted a hat trick, sending Besiktas into the next qualifying round. Ba, who arrived for a cut-price fee, left England without much fanfare. Jose Mourinho and Chelsea were quite content to see him leave, as the arrival of Diego Costa pushed the Senegalese further down the pecking order. The Chelsea fans had no need to mourn the loss of a rotation striker when lavish new signings continued to walk through the Stamford Bridge door.

The situation in Istanbul was marked by its contrast. The usually obsessive Turkish sports media published snaps of Ba arriving at the airport, while fans waited, desperate to drape replica Besiktas scarves around the striker's neck in a bid for a social-media photo opportunity.

Stellar signings have been hard to come by for Besiktas recently, with a general trough in form since 2009-10. The pursuit of Ronaldinho last season came to nothing, as did talk of a move for Diego, who eventually joined Fenerbahce. Yet for Besiktas fans, the signing of a striker from Chelsea, who then scores a hat trick in a Champions League match signals a return to the top table. Ba is so loved by the fans not just for his goals, but because his signing symbolises where and what the club want to be.

The man charged with leading the club back to the top is also carving out a popular reputation with the fans. Slaven Bilic arrived at Besiktas ahead of last season on the back of an unsuccessful spell at Lokomotiv Moscow.

The 45-year-old sought success outside of Croatia and international football, following a largely successful spell with the national team. As his work in Moscow came to nothing, a good bout of early-season form saw Besiktas top of the league, endearing Bilic to the fans with fluid football. The club eventually dropped to third, with Fenerbahce and Galatasaray rising above the Eagles, although Bilic had cemented his reputation with Champions League qualification and an exciting brand of football.

That style will be put through a stringent test in the playoff round. Having dispatched one side wearing red and white, Besiktas face a tough draw against Arsene Wenger's Arsenal.

The Gunners are a draw many Besiktas fans would have dreaded, yet with the optimism currently running through the club, and the enormous din that will greet the North London side in Istanbul, an upset is possible. At this stage of the competition, any team will pose a challenge, yet if Besiktas do manage to see off Arsenal, their return to the upper echelons of European football will be complete.

It's now up to Ba and Bilic to cement their reputations, and ensure that eagle statue at Besiktas' main square becomes the centre point of a celebration.

Eliot is a European football writer with a special interest in Eastern Europe, the Premier League and Serie A. He has written for ESPN, The Daily Mirror, Four Four Two, and others. You can follow him on Twitter @EliotRothwell


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