Unravelling the enigma of football in the post-Soviet republics
Valery Karpin probably didn’t expect tonight’s game to be a table-top clash. Both sides on six points, the winner will almost certainly qualify for the next round. For the loser? Well, there are three more games, so never mind.That’s the problem with the group stages, there’s a lack of urgency and suspense. Can’t we just go back to a conventional knockout format? And make it just for, er, champions? Pretty please, UEFA?
1) Alex is injured (not that one, although Chelsea’s Alex is injured too)Thank goodness that is the only Alex-based confusion we’ll endure tonight. We could have had all kind of problems there. Alex #1, Chelsea’s hammer-footed Brazilian, is out, while Alex #2, Spartak’s Brazilian playmaker, tore a thigh muscle during Friday’s 3-0 win over Alania Vladikavkaz.
Rest assured, Chelsea: Alex #1's absence won’t be felt anywhere near as much Alex #2, who is one of the Russian Premier League’s most creative midfielders.
2) Welliton is brilliantThe 23-year-old Brazilian was injured on matchday two against MSK Zilina, and only returned to the first team against Alania last week. Predictably, he managed a goal. Russia’s top scorer is due one in the Champions League: despite racking up a rather impressive 16 in 18 matches in the Premier League, he hasn’t found the net in the continental competition yet.
Like Didier Drogba, he scored back-to-back hat-tricks in August, and his form has sparked a debate about whether or not he should swap his Brazilian passport for a Russian one and play for the national team.
3) Spartak play on an artificial pitchThe build-up to this match has all been about John Terry, and for once the focus hasn’t been on where the England defender has put his willy.
You probably don’t need this blog to tell you that it was at the Luzhniki Stadion that John Terry slipped on his bottom during a penalty shootout in the 2008 Champions League final against Manchester United. It has been all over the news. NMTB’s mum doesn’t know what a goal is, but such has been the focus on the centre-back and the pitch, that she could probably regale you with the minutiae of that match’s conclusion.
The plastic pitch is football’s great leveller (or best excuse if you lose), and Carlo Ancelotti has got his excuses in early. At least we’re not forecast rain tonight in Moscow. It will be mighty cold, though.
4) Aiden McGeady will show English fans what all the fuss is aboutThe Irish wingman sustained a shin injury on international duty and hasn’t featured since returning to the Russian capital, but will play tonight.
McGeady has put in some superb performances since his big-money move from Celtic and it could be a ding-dong battle on that side of the pitch with Ashley Cole, who could be in a for a busy night. Fingers crossed fans in England will see why Scottish and Irish fans are raving about him.
5) Spartak haven't conceded in the groupDefence isn't exactly the strongest part of Spartak’s game, so Karpin is probably quite pleased that Drogba and Frank Lampard didn’t travel to Moscow.
The Krasnye-Belye have conceded 27 goals in 23 Premier League games, but somehow kept Marseille at bay in the Stade Velodrome. A third clean sheet and Spartak are as good as through; Ibson, used to shield the back four, will be key to them getting something out of tonight.
6) Jano Ananidze is one for the futureThe young Georgian sub is one to look out for. The tricky winger is just 18, but has forced his way into advertising hoarding-destroying slaphead Temuri Ketsbaia’s Georgia team, and made his debut at just 16.
Ananidze can play on either flank or just off the striker, and he has the pace to worry defences. He’s also got an eye for goal. Like every promising youngster on the continent, the "next Georgi Kinkladze" has been linked with a move to Arsenal, even though Karpin has said he’ll reject bids for the youngster until he turns 20. Ananidze, not Karpin.
7) Spartak have only lost once in 10 gamesEarly on in the season, it looked like Karpin would be kicked out by the Spartak hierarchy – which would’ve been a bid awkward, considering he sits on the board as well.
But Karpin has turned it round and a run of just one defeat in the last 10 matches has pushed Spartak up to fourth in the Premier League, and they’ve won six of the last seven games.
8) Spartak’s last game was brought forward to help themSpartak’s fixture against Alania Vladikavkaz was moved to Friday night to give the Muscovites an extra day to prepare for this evening’s match. They won 3-0: Brazilians Ari and Alex scored in the first half before another, Welliton, made it three just after the break, leaving Spartak nine points off CSKA Moskva in the third and final Champions League spot.
9) The Luzhniki will be sold outThis fixture is big news out east. Over 77,000 tickets have been sold so far. Spartak are one of Russia’s best supported teams, while Roman Abramovich’s Blues are followed closely in his homeland. It also means a huge security operation is the order of the day in the Russian capital, and almost 3,000 police officers will be present in case it all kicks off.
10) They think Carlo Ancelotti likes teaThe Russian media have been a rather hospitable lot to the big teams in recent years. Sovetsky Sport presented Jose Mourinho with a trench coat before Inter Milan’s visit last season (he didn’t wear it on the touchline mind, the ungrateful git).
NMTB can’t recall Carlo Ancelotti being a renowned tea drinker, but the newspaper gave the Italian a rather swanky samovar, which should cater to all his hot beverage-making needs. This blog reckons it will never be used in the Ancelotti household, and it’ll probably be hived off to a relative this Christmas.
Probable team (4-1-3-2): Dikan; Parshivlyuk, Suchy, Pareja, Makeev; Ibson; McGeady, Sheshukov, D. Kombarov; Ari, Welliton.
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