Spartak Moscow vs Athletic Bilbao – Thursday, February 15, 18:00 GMT/19:00 CET – Otkritie Arena – Moscow, Russia
After all the drama of Quincy Promes’ potential move abroad, the Dutch talisman has remained in the Russian capital – for now. Allegedly Southampton’s negotiations were only a few million euros off Spartak’s asking price, with a clause guaranteeing Promes a percentage of any transfer fee paid said to be the ultimate stumbling block. Either way, Russian football’s best player is all set to launch another assault on the knockout stages against one of the competition’s toughest prospects.
He will be backed up with a couple of intriguing signings in Sofiane Hanni and Nikola Maksimovic. The former has arrived from Anderlecht with a huge amount of promise to add creativity alongside Promes, while the latter is a smart loan move from Serie A leaders Napoli to add extra cover in defence after Georgi Dzhikia’s sickening anterior cruciate ligament injury in winter training. After already featuring in the Champions League for his parent club, however, Maksimovic is not able to be registered for Spartak in the Europa League.
His unavailability means the centre of defence picks itself if Massimo Carrera opts for a three-man backline – Ilya Kutepov would partner Serdar Tasci and Salvatore Bocchetti in the back three as the only senior central defenders. Although the club retain faint hopes of a late dramatic charge towards the title on the back of five straight league wins, there is also the small matter of the Russian Cup to contend with. With very little serious opposition left in the domestic knockout competition it remains the best chance of silverware, but Europe offers something arguably greater – fulfilling aspirations of their top players.
Athletic Club smashed both their incoming and outgoing transfer records this window after losing key defender Aymeric Laporte to Manchester City, and then replacing him with Real Sociedad’s Iñigo Martínez. The latter is relatively shot for a modern defender at under six foot tall, but in his two matches for his new club since crossing the Basque divide he has won nine aerial duels, and has a calm range of passing that is a real asset to building pressure from the back.
Most likely to partner him is 21-year-old prospect Unai Núñez, a youth team product who has only broken into the first team this season but has shown immense promise already. Iker Muniain, a key architect of the destruction of Manchester United six years ago when just a teenager, is out with a long-term injury, but the livewire Iñaki Williams will provide plenty of threat in the former’s absence.
Despite the youthful talent at their disposal, they are struggling desperately in LaLiga. Without a win in five competitive games, they have slipped down to 13th, and have only managed to win six league matches all season. Admittedly they have only lost once in their last 11 in all competitions, but the pressure is building on them to resurrect their season.
Spartak Moscow vs Athletic Bilbao – Players to Watch
Roman Zobnin #47 – Spartak Moscow
After easing back into the first team following a lengthy injury, Zobnin now has no excuse for his physical condition holding back his form. A classy passer of the ball from midfield, his recycling of possession and energy alongside captain Denis Glushakov will be crucial to Massimo Carrera’s men controlling the home leg. With a place in the Russia starting lineup all but his a year ago, he has limited time to prove that he deserves a starting place for this summer’s World Cup – what better time and place than the pressure-cooker environment of European knockout football?
Aritz Aduriz #20 – Athletic Bilbao
The 37-year-old target man remains an evergreen presence leading the line, although what little pace he had has dissipated with age. Instead, his effectiveness lies in his aerial ability, physical frame and intelligent positioning. Top scoring with 16 goals across all competitions, his threat is obvious, and must be dealt with by Spartak to avoid losing a critical away goal.
Spartak Moscow vs Athletic Bilbao – Match Stats
- The last time Athletic Club faced a Russian side, current Spartak Moscow captain Denis Glushakov scored a penalty in a 2-1 home win for Lokomotiv Moscow
- Athletic Club are unbeaten away from home (W2, D3) in European matches this season
- They are also one of only two sides to have won their final three group stage matches in the Europa League aside from Viktoria Plzen
- Spartak were unbeaten at home in the Champions League before eventually being knocked out in Liverpool and Sevilla’s group
- Spartak Moscow haven’t kept a clean sheet in their last 11 home European games, a run stretching back over seven years
Futbolgrad Network Prediction: Spartak Moscow vs Athletic Bilbao 2-1
Spartak Moscow vs Athletic Bilbao – Possible Lineups
Selikhov – Eshchenko, Bocchetti, Kutepov, Kombarov – Fernando, Glushakov, Zobnin – Promes, Ze Luis, Luiz Adriano
Manager: Massimo Carrera
Arrizabalaga – Lekue, Martínez, Núñez, Saborit – Iturraspe, Rico – Williams, García, Susaeta – Aduriz
Manager: Jose Angel Ziganda
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.