Spartak Moscow would seem to be in meltdown, but their unpredictability makes them dangerous, says Tom English
THE suspicion that Spartak Moscow have lost the plot ahead of Wednesday night’s seismic Champions League qualifier at Celtic Park only hardened after the events of Friday evening at the Luzhniki Stadium.
Having suffered the humiliation of a 5-1 loss at home to their great rivals Dinamo the week before – a capitulation that saw the immediate sacking of the manager Unai Emery – Spartak had a chance to restore a modicum of pride in front of their own people on Friday when Zenit St Petersburg came to Moscow.
Spartak, now under the guidance of sporting director Valery Karpin, tried to repair the damage done against Dinamo. In fact, they only made it worse. Losing 4-2 was bad enough – that’s 12 goals conceded in their last three games – but finishing the match with only nine men illustrated what a desperate place they are in right now. There has been talk of off-field indiscipline, rumours of a dressing room uprising and of players being out the night before games, but whatever the truth is, there is little denying that on the field they are a disorganised and dispirited bunch.
Trailing 2-1, Nicolas Pareja, their Argentine defender, was shown a red card. Two-one quickly became 4-1. In the 72nd minute, Juan Insaurralde came on as a substitute. In the 90th minute he got sent off. They’re in crisis right enough. They now lie seventh in the Russian league, 11 points behind CSKA who have played one game fewer. Their hopes of any European football past Christmas have evaporated. So it begs the question, what kind of challenge are they going to represent in Glasgow this week? Are they going to be a demoralised soft touch incapable of defending their own goal or will they be a wounded and dangerous animal ready to freewheel because they’ve got nothing left to lose?
Speaking before he watched the Zenit game, Neil Lennon said he was interested to see what kind of reaction there was going to be from the Spartak players after the 5-1 loss and Emery’s subsequent dismissal. Emery had lost the dressing room – Karpin confirmed it when he sacked him – but Lennon was expecting a response and he didn’t see one.
“There are stories coming out about indiscipline and lack of team spirit, whether they’re true or not,” said the Celtic manager. “That comes from the results. But they’re a good side. An excellent side. As a team, they’re a bit more flamboyant than Benfica who are more pragmatic and maybe better defensively. There’s a bit more flair and pace in this Spartak team although they do throw caution to the wind sometimes and leave themselves open.
“I think we have to be careful attacking-wise because Russian teams historically are excellent on the counter attack. They’ve got a lot of flair in the team and in [Emmanuel] Emenike they’ve got a goalscorer. [Emenike scored twice against Celtic in Moscow]. At the back, though, I don’t think it’s their strongest area.”
The pressure is all on Celtic. And that lends the night a new dynamic in that this is the first time in the group that Lennon’s team will feel they must win. They haven’t carried that burden yet. Sure, if Benfica lose at Barcelona then a draw will do, but they won’t be playing for a draw at Celtic Park. They can’t. The target is a win and then hope that’s good enough, that Benfica don’t pull off a footballing miracle by going to the Nou Camp and also winning, which would see Celtic lose out on the last 16 despite having ten points.
It’s an issue that Kelvin Wilson raised on Friday when he spoke about how his team must now capitalise on their defeat of Barca, the win that has put them in such a fine position. “I’ll always remember that game, it will be special to me,” he said. “You don’t want to win a game like that and then drop out. It would be pretty pointless. Two of my best mates came to that Barcelona match, one Arsenal season ticket holder and one Man United and they said they’d never seen anything like it in their lives. When the draw was made nobody would have expected us to be where we are. We had confidence in ourselves. Now it’s there in black and white, people are interested.”
Of course, Celtic might have to get through Wednesday without their two great midfield anchors, Victor Wanyama – who is definitely out through suspension – and Scott Brown, who may start the game but whose ability to last the pace is always a source of worry given his degenerative hip. An operation has been delayed purely because of this game against Spartak and Celtic’s drive for the nirvana of the last 16.
They have shown themselves capable of coping without one of their midfield buffers, but both of them? It’s a worry. Wanyama has been immense, after all. In both games against Barcelona he looked like a player who could just as easily have been playing for the other side, such was his composure and big-game mentality.
Lennon is going to have to wait and see how Brown came through yesterday’s Scottish Cup tie against Arbroath and he’s also going to have to wait to see what kind of team Karpin brings to Glasgow.
Aiden McGeady didn’t start the Zenit game, coming off the bench for an inauspicious return from a foot injury. Spartak were rigid in their 4-2-3-1 formation under Emery, but all bets might be off now that he has gone.
“I don’t know if Aiden will play on Wednesday,” said Lennon last week, although it now looks certain he will (see story below). “We knew he’d play well in the first game so we sent the players out [to watch him] because he was their main source of attacking thrust. I don’t know if he found it difficult playing against Celtic in terms of his own feelings for the club. Sometimes that can work against you. But we played well on the night. We defended pretty well when we had to. Not knowing what way Karpin looks at things makes it even more important that we concentrate on what we’ve got to do.”
A win on Wednesday would bring Celtic’s tally to ten points from their six games, a huge achievement. “Ten points would be a great return,” said Lennon, “but Man City didn’t qualify with ten points last year. Like you say, if Benfica beat Barcelona and we beat Spartak you just have to hold your hands up and say ‘well done Benfica’. I’m not sure if the majority of our fans expect us to go through and that may work in favour of our players. There might be an expectation to win the game, though, considering the problems Spartak have had, but I don’t look too much into that. They’re a dangerous team. Having watched them in Benfica they were unlucky not to get something out of the game. They created three or four decent chances and had they scored they would have won the game, so they’re no mugs. We have to make sure our set-up is right and play with the intensity we can, but make sure we’re mindful of our discipline in defence as well.”
It will be another one of those nights at Celtic Park, a night to make the ears bleed and, if things go well, to make the spirits soar, too. They have come a long way, but they still have much to do.