CSKA vs Spartak, Sunday 17.00 BST/18.00 CET VEB Arena
Billed as the “All-Russian Derby” throughout local media, the significance and scale of this clash of Russian titans cannot be understated. Spartak, the most famous and historic club in Russia, brainchild of Soviet legend Nikolai Starostin, and closing in on their first championship in 16 years as league leaders; CSKA, the reigning champions, unbeaten since the winter break and fighting not just to retain their crown but also to keep their priceless Champions League spot. This is no ordinary cross-city rivalry; it’s not even a regular CSKA vs Spartak clash.
The certainty of the title’s destination has wavered numerous time over the past few weeks, even despite Spartak’s healthy points advantage in the league, but the psychological battle is much more complicated than a matter of points in the table. The People’s Team has had to wait so long for success that nerves are bound to dictate their emotions for the visit to the magnificent VEB Arena; Spartak have built a reputation for letting their legs turn to rubber when the pressure’s on, and crushing defeats to Rostov and Krylya have done little to dispel this notion. However, in master tactician Massimo Carrera they have shown real character to bounce back from both those unsettling results.
It will be the second consecutive home Moscow derby for CSKA following their ominously dominant 4-0 thrashing of Lokomotiv on Wednesday, and they come into the game on a strong run. Unbeaten under new head coach Viktor Goncharenko, who took over from club legend Leonid Slutskiy during the winter break, they have the scent in their nostrils as they have refused to let go of Spartak’s coattails. With Zenit just one point behind them, there is pressure from both directions, but they have momentum in their favour.
What will count against them is the loss of injured creative maestro Alan Dzagoev, who is vital to their 3-5-2 system, especially in the absence of Roman Eremenko whose ban for cocaine has kept him out for the majority of the season. His place in the lineup will probably be taken by Zoran Tosic, who has been recovering from illness this week, which leaves a likely midfield three of Pontus Wernbloom, Bibras Natkho and Alexander Golovin. The latter scored a fantastic goal against Lokomotiv but plays more naturally as a number 10 – if he is tasked with filling a more traditional midfield role his tremendous talent may not be maximised.
Spartak are likely to welcome back towering frontman Ze Luis from injury, which gives Carrera an extra option for his gameplan. In the absence of the Cape Verdean or Luiz Adriano for the narrow 1-0 win over Ural, the lightweight trickery of Lorenzo Melgarejo – who scored the only goal of the return match in Ekaterinburg under similar circumstances – lead the line. More crucially, perhaps, is the return of Denis Glushakov in the middle of the park. The only question remaining is whether Spartak opt for a back three or a back four; Georgi Dzhikia has started ahead of Carrera’s countryman Salvatore Bocchetti and Ilya Kutepov for purely tactical reasons.
What makes this fixture fascinating is the asymmetrical nature of each team’s need. A straight shootout for the title with both teams neck and neck would need no interpretation, but with Spartak holding the points advantage as visitors, their approach was difficult to call. Will Carrera go for the jugular to end the debate once and for all, knowing that even a defeat still leaves his side in control? How will Goncharenko cope with the loss of his creator in chief? How will Spartak deal with the intensity and ferocious fervour of the packed VEB Arena? After all the nuances of tactical and psychological plans, what might prove to be the decisive factor is the simplest of factors – the sheer energy of home support.
CSKA vs Spartak – Players to Watch Out For
Aleksander Golovin #17 – CSKA Moscow
In the almost certain absence of Dzagoev, the weight of creative responsibility falls heavily on the youngster’s shoulders. Sitting back and frustrating Spartak is not an option with the pressure of holding onto a Champions League place, performing in front of the most intense atmosphere and keeping title aspirations alive, so to open up Spartak’s well-organised backline Golovin’s invention will be key. Pontus Wernbloom was magnificent shielding the defence in the win over Lokomotiv, and if he reproduces that form, he will give Golovin the freedom to push forward and support Vitinho and Alexey Ionov.
Roman Zobnin #47 – Spartak Moscow
Quincy Promes is the headline act in this theatre of footballing talent, but the supporting cast are underestimated at CSKA’s peril. Zobnin has been a class act for Spartak in the engine room and is one of Russia’s most promising talents who could play a fundamental role in the next generation of Russia’s national team. Zobnin offers Spartak a near-complete midfielder who provides the likes of Glushakov and Promes room for roaming forward by linking play between Fernando and the forwards – a priceless commodity in his side’s system
CSKA vs Spartak – Match Stats
- Viktor Goncharenko is unbeaten so far as CSKA manager in eight matches – the longest such run of any new CSKA manager in history
- None of the last seven meetings have ended as a draw
- Spartak have only scored once in their last three trips across town, but it was the decisive goal two seasons ago
- CSKA have more than three times Spartak’s number of wins since the turn of the millennium
Prediction: CSKA vs Spartak 2-1
CSKA vs Spartak – Possible Lineups
Akinfeev – V. Berezutskiy, Vasin, A. Berezutskiy – Fernandes, Natkho, Wernbloom, Golovin, Tosic – Vitinho, Ionov
Manager: Viktor Goncharenko
Rebrov – Eschenko, Tasci, Dzhikia, Kombarov – Zobnin, Glushakov, Fernando – Promes, Ze Luis, Samedov
Manager: Massimo Carrera
Andrew Flint is an English freelance football writer living in Tyumen, Western Siberia, with his wife and two daughters. He has featured on These Football Times, Russian Football News, Four Four Two and Sovetski Sport, mostly focusing on full-length articles about derbies, youth development and the game in Russia. Due to his love for FC Tyumen, he is particularly interested in lower league Russian football and is looking to establish himself in time for the 2018 World Cup. Follow Andrew on Twitter @AndrewMijFlint.