Advancing to the Champions League knockout stage kicked off wild celebrations for Wesley Sneijder (center) and his Galatasaray teammates. (AP)
It was the most electric moment so far in this year’s UEFA Champions League, and, to hear Galatasaray’s Wesley Sneijder tell the story, the second-most memorable event in his club career after winning the 2009-10 Champions League crown with Inter Milan. In the dying minutes of December’s group-stage finale in Istanbul, Sneijder’s team needed a goal to eliminate Italian champion Juventus and advance to the UCL round of 16.
The game had already taken on the status of the surreal: a one-day postponement due to a snowstorm; a field that was torn up like thickly plowed farmland; and a small crowd for Day 2 that kept on growing and growing until the Thunderdome of a stadium was nearly filled at the end.
That was when Sneijder ran onto a headed ball from teammate Didier Drogba and hit a shot so dead-solid-perfect in traffic that it seemed like it took the only goal-scoring path possible, barely wider than the ball itself.
Victory. Galatasaray had struck down mighty Juve, setting up a round of 16 berth that commences today, in the lion’s den of Istanbul, against Chelsea.
“It was crazy, crazy, crazy,” Sneijder told SI.com by phone on Monday from Turkey. “Apart from the year we won the Champions League, this was definitely the second-best moment. Because they were two crazy days with the snow. The fans were pushing us to go for the victory, and we believed in it.
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“Juventus was leaning back and just defending, and we were fighting for the goal. In the end, we deserved to make that goal. I was totally shocked that we beat Juventus and went to the last 16, but actually, before we started that game I had a good feeling. Because in our own stadium we can beat anyone. That’s our strength, I think.”
In our own stadium we can beat anyone. The raucous atmosphere of Turkish stadiums should be on every soccer fan’s bucket list, and Sneijder is hoping it provides an edge in the clash against Chelsea, a team that is managed, of course, by his (and Drogba’s) old coach, José Mourinho. Galatasaray got the chance to face Mourinho’s Real Madrid in last year’s UCL quarterfinals but fell short. This match-up provides another chance.
“We have like a special relationship,” Sneijder says of his ties with Mourinho, who coached him at Inter. “We talk almost every week, and not just about football but about everything in life. Now we’re going to meet each other again in Champions. It’s something special, something different than playing against other coaches.”
Though Mourinho has a reputation of favoring cagey tactics, Sneijder thinks the Blues will attack on Wednesday, trying to finish off the tie in the first game. But because Chelsea is the favorite, Sneijder says that allows Gala to play its own game and not get caught up in what Chelsea is doing.
This isn’t exactly the same Galatasaray team that reached last year’s Champions League quarters. For starters, there’s a different coach, Roberto Mancini, who started to exorcise his own UCL demons by eliminating Juventus and advancing to this stage. He’d do so even more if he can vanquish Mourinho, one of Mancini’s nemeses.
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Then there’s Sneijder himself. A year ago at this time he had just joined Gala after a long playing layoff during his final months with Inter. Now he’s fully fit.
“Honestly, I feel 100 percent now,” Sneijder says. “Last year was completely different, because I didn’t play for four months. To stay in form you need to play games, and I was just training every day. Now for a while I’m playing a lot of games. I’m not injured anymore. And I’m really looking forward to this game, because Champions League is the best thing you can do as a soccer player, apart from the World Cup. To show my quality I need to be 100 percent, and I feel that way now.”
He’s still a quality player, one who can score goals and see the right passes and play off his teammates. Ultimately, Sneijder, 29, would like to play in MLS (“I love that country. I really want to go there and join that league one day”), but right now he’s still enjoying the games at the top of the pyramid in the world’s greatest club tournament. And if Galatasaray can eliminate Juventus, why not Chelsea?
“Why not?” Sneijder asks, with a laugh that suggests he’s not actually having a laugh. “Why not? We have to believe in it, and I have a good feeling.”