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Comeback kings Loko carry league form into Europe - Russian football roundup

Comeback kings Loko carry league form into Europe - Russian football roundup
A total of four Russian Premier League teams began their UEFA Europa League campaigns this week, with mixed results from their first-leg matches in the competition’s Round of 32 knockout phase.

Spartak Moscow welcomed Athletic Bilbao to the Russian capital, while cross-town rivals Lokomotiv and CSKA faced away trips to OGC Nice and Red Star Belgrade respectively. Zenit also ventured overseas, facing Scottish champions Celtic. RT Sport has provided a rundown of reports, goals, gaffes, quotes and quips from this week’s Russian Europa League action.

Red Star Belgrade 0-0 CSKA Moscow

CSKA Moscow were the first of the four Moscow clubs to kick off their 2018 European campaign, travelling to the Serbian capital to play Red Star Belgrade on Tuesday night.

Allied to CSKA’s Moscow rivals Spartak, home fans created a giant tifo before the game showing an intimidating masked gladiator between the Red Star and Spartak logos.

Amid sleet and strong winds at Rajko Mitic Stadium, CSKA saw most of the ball although the home team spurned good chances through Nemanja Radonjic and Damien Le Tallec either side of half-time, with Igor Akinfeev saving well on both occasions.

Red star’s El Fardou Ben Nabouhane also went close for 1991 European Cup winners Red Star, although goalkeeper Milan Borjan saved well from CSKA’s Vitinho at the other end.

Vitinho also fired wide when well-placed late on, but 2005 UEFA Cup winners CSKA will be confident going into the return leg at VEB Arena in the Russian capital on Thursday.

Spartak Moscow 1-3 Athletic Club Bilbao

Spartak Moscow’s first competitive game of 2018 was at home to Athletic Bilbao in the Europa League Round of 32 on Thursday night. The boys from the Basque country got a taste of Moscow’s biting -14 winter temperatures, but that didn’t stop them from putting on a blazing performance at Otkrytiye Arena.

La Liga side found themselves 3-0 up at half-time as it quickly became apparent that reigning Russian champions Spartak were still trudging through their domestic league winter break. However, that excuse seemed redundant versus a team entering the game on the back of a winless streak spanning six games, and languishing 13th in the league.

Two goals came courtesy of Aritz Aduriz, who opened the scoring on 22 minutes by beautifully rounding the keeper before slotting home after a wondrous assist from strike partner Raul Garcia. Some 17 minutes later, Aduriz doubled his tally and Bilbao’s lead by knocking in a loose ball from a set piece.

Spartak did have their moments. Captain Denis Glushakov first pinged a shot off the post and then headed the ball just wide, both chances sandwiched either side of a scissor kick from Luiz Adriano. However, Spartak’s woes were compounded in first-half injury time when Kutepov turned the ball into his own net trying to clear Mikel Rico’s shot off the line.

In the second half, Spartak mounted a meagre recovery operation, pulling one back on the hour mark through Luiz Adriano, but any fightback from thereon fizzled out and the game finished 3-1 to the visitors.

The match did mark the debut of January signing Sofiane Hanni for Spartak, who need a small miracle to advance in the competition when they visit the San Mames Stadium next week.

OGC Nice 2-3 Lokomotiv Moscow

For the first half hour of Lokomotiv Moscow’s match against Nice in France, it seemed they too were ailing from a two-month void of competitive matches.

The Railwaymen looked as though their tie was over inside half an hour when former Milan and Liverpool striker Mario Balotelli netted after four minutes and then slotted home a penalty on 28 minutes to make it 2-0 in the south of France.

Loko pulled a goal back through their own spot kick on the stroke of half-time; Manuel Fernandes stroked home to pull one back and halve the deficit for the Russians. Portuguese midfielder Fernandes has been vocal about Lokomotiv’s resolve, especially when asked about their chances of staying atop the Russian league, where they sit eight points clear of second-placed Zenit.

The former Benfica and Valencia man seemed like he was on a one-man mission to prove himself right, and after the restart rattled home an equalizer from a looping free kick into the bottom corner on 69 minutes.

Then, just eight minutes later, Fernandes netted his hattrick - his second in the competition this season - by slotting low to the keeper’s left after clever work by Anton Miranchuk to make it 3-2 and complete a dramatic comeback for Loko.

The Fernandes-spearheaded fightback, which propelled him into the reckoning for Europa League player of the week, means Lokomotiv could even afford a 1-0 home defeat in the return leg and still advance to the last 16.

Celtic 1-0 Zenit St. Petersburg

Zenit St. Petersburg suffered a narrow away defeat to Scottish champions Celtic in Glasgow. Zenit posed little threat and appeared rusty throughout, having last played competitively in mid-December. Roberto Mancini’s team almost conceded in the opening stages, although Celtic’s Olivier Ntcham shot just wide when well-placed on eight minutes.

At a typically fever-pitch Celtic Park, the hosts dominated for large spells although only secured a breakthrough on 78 minutes, when Callum McGregor met substitute Charly Musonda’s cross and volleyed emphatically past Zenit keeper Andrey Lunev.

McGregor has since been dubbed ‘The Notorious’ by some sections of the press, a nickname bestowed upon him by virtue of his namesake - Irish MMA superstar Conor McGregor - who is a high-profile supporter of ‘The Bhoys.’

Zenit’s best chance in the match came when new signing Anton Zabolotny tested Celtic goalkeeper Dorus de Vries from close-range effort on 15 minutes, but de Vries was largely untroubled.

Midfielder Daler Kuzyaev was lucky to escape further punishment in the first half when he dragged down McGregor, shortly after being given a yellow card for dissent by Slovenian referee Damir Skomina.

Zenit boss Roberto Mancini introduced Argentine duo Matias Kranevitter and Sebastian Driussi on the hour mark, but the duo were ultimately unable to change the game and Celtic held on for a well-deserved win.

After the game, Mancini said his team can turn around the deficit when the sides meet in St. Petersburg next Thursday. "We need to improve for the second game, but the result is not a big problem, 1-0 is a score we can change," said the Italian.

"We lost this game 1-0 but with another 90 minutes we can change the result. We can play better, we can be more offensive with our striker. We need to improve up front,” he added.