Cologne - With as many goals after seven matches as FC Schalke 04’s Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and twice as many as Bayer 04 Leverkusen’s Stefan Kießling, SV Darmstadt 98 captain Aytac Sulu - a defender no less - is causing quite the stir in 2015/16.
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The 29-year-old endured a nightmarish Bundesliga debut, but has since netted two priceless goals in unforgettable games against top-flight stalwarts Leverkusen and Borussia Dortmund, underlining his status as the Lilies' Mr. Irreplaceable.
"Aytac is a model captain," said Darmstadt assistant coach Sascha Franz. "He’s symbolic of the revival we’re undergoing here." Indeed, Sulu did not miss a game as Darmstadt gained promotion to Bundesliga 2 via the play-offs one year (2013/14), and marched into the Bundesliga the next, underpinned by the joint-best defensive record in the second tier (26 goals conceded).
It is a journey that neither Darmstadt nor Sulu saw coming. The Lilies had spent much of their time since being relegated from the Bundesliga in 1981/82 languishing either in, or just below, the Third Division. Sulu’s only pre-Darmstadt experience of top-flight football, meanwhile, had come by way of a 1-0 win over Gaziantepspor during his time as a Genclerbirligi Ankara player in the 2011/12 Turkish Süper Lig.
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Following earlier spells in Germany with VfR Aalen and the TSG 1899 Hoffenheim reserves, Sulu left Turkey for Austria in 2012. He made 17 appearances for Erste Klasse outfit SC Rheindorf Altach, before joining Darmstadt during the 2012/13 winter transfer window. Despite officially being relegated, the Hesse club were reinstated to the Third Division after Kickers Offenbach went into administration. It has been onwards and upwards for all concerned ever since.
Since moving to the Merck-Stadion am Böllenfalltor, Sulu has racked up 7,999 minutes of playing time across Germany’s top three divisions. He has battled through the pain when most players would have stayed home, turning out on more than one occasion wearing a protective face mask and even nursing a broken tooth. With Sulu at the heart of the back four, Darmstadt have conceded an average of 0.8 goals per game. In the 21 games he has missed, that number jumps to 1.6.
Hard as nails physically, Sulu is also virtually unshakable psychologically. The critics swarmed after the Heidelberg native conceded a penalty and netted an own goal in a 2-2 draw with Hannover 96 on his Bundesliga debut on 15 August 2015, but his response has been emphatic to say the least.
Sulu scored the only goal of the game as Darmstadt registered their first Bundesliga win in 33 years thanks to a 1-0 success away to Leverkusen on Matchday 4. The 1.85-metre-tall defender then added to his modest collection of invaluable strikes with a last-gasp equaliser in the Matchday 7 draw in Dortmund. Made for the Bundesliga? You better believe it.