After a 16-year wait, Spartak Moscow are champions of Russia again. Not since 2001 have “The People’s Club” claimed top spot. And if Wednesday night’s colossal pitch invasion following Spartak’s 3-0 victory over Terek Grozny is anything to go by, the supporters are understandably delighted to have ended the drought.
In the intervening years, Spartak have mustered a handful of second-place finishes and a solitary Russian Cup; they have ground shared with city rivals Lokomotiv, hosted teams at the 80,000-seater Luzhniki Stadium, and even once played a home game in Ekaterinburg, 880 miles east of Moscow. Their only promising foray into continental competition came to a humiliating end with a 10-3 aggregate defeat at the hands of FC Porto in the 2011 Europa League Quarter Finals.
Suffice to say, the last 16 years have been tough on Spartak fans. Their incredible run of nine titles in ten seasons, between 1992 and 2001, feels like a distant memory. As they have struggled, bitter rivals CSKA Moscow have risen to prominence, winning six Russian championships in that time. Now Spartak have knocked CSKA off their perch, sealing the title with three games to spare and recently completing a double over their rivals.
Spartak have settled in their new and permanent home, the Otkrytie Arena, a stadium of steep stands and vociferous home support, which bears strong resemblance the Allianz Arena in its mosaic façade. And with top spot in a Champions League Group to look forward to, the outlook at Spartak is rosy and one could be forgiven for thinking that this season’s victory was a comfortable triumph. The story of their success is quite different.
Just three games into the season, following a defeat in the Europa League at the hands of Cypriot outfit AEK Larnaca, Dmitri Alenichev, of Champions League winning fame with Porto, resigned as head coach. His assistant, Massimo Carrera took over, initially as caretaker manager, but then on a permanent basis following a successful start. A former Juventus defender, the Italian instilled a defensive style of play, a notable change from the free-flowing, attacking football that brought Spartak so much success during the 1990s.
Spartak have often looked unconvincing this season, winning 1-0 on a remarkable 11 occasions. Perhaps that gritty determination to grind out results is the hallmark of champions. However, not all teams in the Russian Premier League are of the highest quality. Indeed, it was a drab 1-0 win over lowly Tom Tomsk that ultimately sealed the title. The champions-elect made tough work of a Tomsk side that has mustered just 14 points from 29 games and had travelled over 1,750 miles to play.
In the recent crunch match away at CSKA, the home side were on top for long periods of the game, but it was Spartak who came away with a 2-1 victory and the title all but won. When opposing fans speak of luck, Spartak fans point to resilience and Carrera’s “professorial” management style. Left-sided Dmitri Kombarov, goalkeeper Artyom Rebrov and captain Dennis Glushakov have epitomised the team’s consistent solidity. Meanwhile, player of the season Quincy Promes, rumoured to be a Liverpool transfer target, has added a touch of flair in attack. Ultimately, when the pressure has been on, Spartak have delivered.
Fans of the club will now expectantly look ahead to next season. Their long drought may be over, but retaining the title will be a challenge as CSKA and Zenit look to strengthen their squads this summer. Promes looks set to stay for the Champions League campaign, but a lack of quality in other areas may lead to their downfall in Europe’s elite competition. That said, the prospect of a sold-out Otkrytie Arena and imposing home support could lead to some exciting European nights in Moscow.
The foundations are there for Spartak to push on. Another 16-year title drought looks highly unlikely. However, whether they can dominate domestically and impress in Europe remains to be seen.