Spartak Moscow restore 10-point lead & march on to 1st title in 16 years

Spartak Moscow restore 10-point lead & march on to 1st title in 16 years
Spartak Moscow edged closer to an elusive first Russian football title for 16 years with a 1-0 win over Ural on Tuesday night, ahead of a crunch derby with fierce city rivals CSKA at the weekend.

A Luis Fernando goal on 23 minutes was enough to see off FC Ural 1-0 at Otkrytie Arena and put Spartak’s title charge back on track after a defeat to Rostov momentarily derailed their push for a first championship since 2001.

With the result, Spartak regained a 10-point lead over current champions CSKA Moscow in second, which they earned with a vital 2-1 victory over Zenit St. Petersburg in the 23rd round of games. CSKA have a game in hand, however, and will look to cut the gap when they face Lokomotiv Moscow on Wednesday evening.

After the victory over Zenit, many believed the title was Spartak’s to lose. And it looked as if they were trying to do exactly that in their next game away to Rostov in a dismal 3-0 defeat that saw captain Denis Glushakov sent off.

Spartak’s loss made for a miserable birthday for Italian manager Massimo Carrera, who turned 53 that day, and subsequently tension replaced euphoria, leaving many wondering if complacency had set into a side with six games of the season still to play.

Nevertheless, a Tuesday night game versus 10th-placed FC Ural presented a chance to claw back their earlier advantage.

Ural were coming off a 2-0 defeat away at Zenit which saw them receive a flurry of red cards – three in total – including one for former Tottenham Hotspur striker Roman Pavlyuchenko, during a 2-0 loss in the first match at St. Petersburg Stadium, which will host the opening game of the Confederations Cup this summer.

Spartak started the brighter in the Moscow dusk, creating chances from the off as Ural seemed unsettled by the three suspensions. Their first chance was carved out by Ivelin Popov, whose 25-yard shot finished off a fine Spartak move that Ural keeper Zabolotnyy was equal to.

Brazilian Fernando did beat Zabolotnyy to make the breakthrough on 23 minutes, and Spartak thought they had a second 10 minutes later but Melgarejo's effort was ruled out for offside. Despite Ural’s best efforts in the second half, Spartak held on to restore their advantage over CSKA.

After the match, Spartak manager Carrera praised his players for their efforts in a game that came so soon after the particularly bad display in Rostov, where they conceded three goals against a side that hadn’t scored a single goal in seven games.

Italian Carrera has won admiration for his maverick approach and football philosophy, carved out when working as assistant to now-Chelsea manager Antonio Conte at Juventus and the Italian national side.

Two mouth-watering Moscow derbies in five days will now be imperative in deciding the outcome of the Russian Premier League. First, CSKA play Lokomotiv at the VEB Arena on Wednesday night, which represents a chance for CSKA to close the gap on Spartak in a seesaw battle at the top. 

 That will be followed on Sunday by a crunch showdown between the league’s top two, Spartak versus CSKA, in a match that will surely decide which name will be carved into the Russian Premier League trophy in May.

If Spartak are victorious, it will end a drought of league titles for the most decorated team in Russian history. It will soon become apparent whether Carrera will win accolades too while at Spartak.

Whether that will tempt Spartak’s Quincy Promes to stay in the Russian capital is another issue. The Dutch hitman is one of the hottest strikers in the league, and scored the first of Spartak’s two goals in the win against Zenit. It was his 10th league goal of the season.

The 25-year-old’s exploits for Spartak since joining the club in 2015 have caught the eye of some of Europe’s biggest clubs, reportedly including English sides Liverpool and Arsenal, meaning a Spartak league win and the promise of Champions League football may not be enough to persuade him to stay.