Later on this evening, Spartak Moscow do battle with Marseille at France’s largest football stadium, the Stade Vélodrome.
After finishing in 2nd place in the 2009 edition of the Russian Premier League, this season – which concludes in a matter of weeks – has been a resounding disappointment for Krasno-belye.
Coach Valeri Karpin has too regularly changed tactics and personnel, and defensive errors have been inexcusably frequent and damaging to the nation’s best supported club.
The squad has a bloated look (a recurring theme as there were 80 players on the books in 2003), although the midfield possesses balance – numerous game-changing magicians, a plethora of wingers and several hardened holding midfielder.
It’s in defence though where Spartak lack real quality and depth, as the centre backs, for starters, are far too gung-ho; easily lured into leaving gaps, and shorn of that canny aggression required to fight at the highest level of club football.
Recently, the pace and power of CSKA Moscow duo Vágner Love and Seydou Doumbia forced Spartak’s centre backs into an array of tactical fouls. If on his game this evening, Marseille’s powerful Brazilian frontman Brandão could have a field-day.
Upon reading that Spartak lack options at the heart of the rearguard, some may question the recent decision to offload Martin Jiránek to Birmingham City.
Well, prior to his departure, the Czech Republic international found himself behind Martin Stranzl and Marek Suchý in the pecking-order, and the club have just acquired the highly-touted Argentine Nicolás Pareja.
Neither full back – Sergei Parshivlyuk on the right, Andrei Ivanov on the left – offers much presence in attack, and although Parshivlyuk is technically gifted, his approach to defending can be laissez-faire.
Karpin encourages his full backs to push on as he often plays without wingers. However, Spartak are so centrally-orientated when it comes to creating, it’s little wonder his full backs don’t do anything worthy of mention.
Such is the bias towards central concoction that even when Karpin has introduced wingers, they’re starved of service. An example would be Nikita Bazhenov in the aforementioned defeat to CSKA, who struggled to get involved in the game.
A few months ago, I was impressed by young Yevgeni Makeev’s performances at left back. He looked composed, enthusiastic and timed his overlaps well. However, Karpin now sees him as more of a midfield option from the bench.
Goalkeeper has also been a problem position, and by my reckoning, has cost Spartak around a dozen points recently. Even with the disastrous Soslan Dzhanayev removed from the firing line, things haven’t improved.
Due to limits on the number of foreign internationals allowed in the first XI, Spartak were somewhat forced to hand Croatian custodian Stipe Pletikosa to Spurs.
Alas, the two Russian ‘keepers still in Spartak’s squad are alarmingly error-strewn, while recent purchase Andriy Dikan was prone to the odd blunder during his time at Terek Grozny.
Striker-wise, the Russian giants boast one of the finest forwards on the continent. Brazil’s Welliton may be regularly overlooked by the Selecção (leading to rumours he could play for Russia), but the 23-year-old is absolutely lethal in front of goal.
Although Karpin’s various systems involve playing just one man up top (Ari floats behind his compatriot, or out on the wing), a hideous lack of back-up for his goalgetter was exposed during Welliton’s recent injury lay-off.
Fellow Brazilian Ari was tasked with plugging the gap, but he really is more the deep-lurking livewire type. Inevitably, Spartak’s form suffered as the wand-holders and, when bothered with, wingers had no one to feed.
That specific South American country is also the birthplace of two of the league’s most talented midfielders, both of whom currently call Spartak home. The box-to-box Ibson and trequartista Alex complement one another wonderfully, and make the team tick.
Alex has the vision, skill, versatility and execution to play at a higher level. However, he lacks consistency, pace, and, most disappointingly, commitment. Luckily for Marseille, he also wastes a large number of Spartak’s set-pieces.
Nevertheless, the French champions must be wary of the frequently used Spartak free-kick tactics, as they can occasionally work to devastating effect. It involves left-footed Alex smashing a daisy-cutter for Welliton to diagonally dart at and steer towards the side of goal where the ‘keeper isn’t poised.
Ibson can play deep in the midfield, further up, or out on the flanks. His eye for and completion of through-balls can be incisive, but his tendency to dawdle becomes apparent against aggressive athletes.
Like Alex he has no real pace to speak of, but is a fantastic little player nonetheless. Comparisons with Frank Lampard often spring to mind given the way Ibson appears in the box at the right time, and is so eager to unselfishly instigate.
If anything, the Brazilian is technically superior to Lampard, and more versatile – often covering in defence when one of the centre backs tracks a forward elsewhere. Yet there’s one key aspect to an attacker’s game that Ibson lacks…
Irregardless of the neat triangles, and lust for and use of the ball, standing off him will pay dividends for l’OM – because, despite a mere one goal during his stint in Russia, Ibson never stops shooting!
Needless wellying of the ball was the issue during Welliton’s absence, and illustrates the lack of maturity and discipline in Spartak’s ranks. Facing packed banks, selfish red-shirted players sent the ball skywards by rota.
With so many wingers and another two playmakers in the squad (Argentina’s Cristian Maidana, and the stupendously gifted 17-year-old Georgian Jano Ananidze), Didier Deschamps’ side must seize control of the midfield and cut the supply-line.
Despite once not being on Karpin’s agenda at all, wingers are in vogue at the moment, and Dmitri Kombarov has impressed on the left flank since switching from cross-city rivals Dinamo.
Likewise, Ananidze – lethal with his right boot at set-pieces – can dovetail with Alex in alternating between the left wing and central trequartista position.
Ari is similar to Dirk Kuyt when positioned on the right-hand side as he’s ultimately there to fill a hole. Nevertheless, the multi-faceted attacker is a handy targetman too – using his strength to shield the ball, or taking it with an instant 180° spin that either gains territory or a foul.
By using the former AZ Alkmaar man to hold the ball up (Spartak generally start from short goal-kicks, though when these are shackled, the ‘keeper kicks as far upfield as possible), Welliton can linger on the last shoulder of the defence, and keep a nervy backline pushed deeper than they’d like to be.
Should Karpin attempt to shut up shop tonight, he has a wealth of defensive midfielders at his disposal. Aleksandr Sheshukov played in the 2-1 win over Saturn on the weekend, and is tidy if unspectacular.
Aleksandr Zotov is another option in the engine-room, but the 20-year-old is a fiery character who literally throws himself into slide tackles.
Their own shortcomings aside, hope comes for the Russian runners-up in the shape of Marseille’s patchy 2010/11 form – which includes two losses and two draws from their opening five league games.
But their squad is still imperious, and players of Mathieu Valbuena’s calibre might prove too much for the likes of Andrei Ivanov, who is more accustomed to facing Russian journeyman on a weekly basis.