Matches between Zenit St. Petersburg and Spartak Moscow are always amongst the most anticipated events in the Russian Football Premier League calendar. It is not only clashes between Russia’s biggest and most successful football clubs, it is also battles between the country’s two biggest cities, Moscow and St. Petersburg, the first and second capital.
This season, the match has received another spice, as the two clubs now also fight for the championship. Spartak, who haven’t been among the top teams since they finished second in 2012, are suddenly leading the league this season, and with eight points down to Zenit, and CSKA Moscow, the game is a six-pointer in the truest sense of the word.
After years of underperforming, Spartak haven’t won a title since 2003, the Red-Whites are back in the top of Russian football, and the man they have to thank is Massimo Carrera. The Italian head coach worked for Antonio Conte at both Juventus and the Italian national team, before he was head hunted by Spartak last summer, where he was supposed to help Dmitry Alenichev stabilize the defence.
Only a few weeks into the season Alenichev was sacked and after a lot of speculation, Carrera replaced him with the task of saving the season. Clearly, he has done much more than that, although Spartak did suffer an embarrassing cup defeat to FNL side SKA-Khabarovsk, the foundation of the success has been a great defence. In true Italian fashion, Carrera has already beaten the club record for most 1-0 victories in a season, and with the exception of an embarrassing 1-0 defeat at home to Ufa in September and 4-0 defeat away to Krylya Sovetov in December, Spartak have been almost flawless since Carrera took over, when looking at the results.
There are however those fans who think that Carrera’s way of playing football is too boring and far away from the traditional explosive and offensive Spartak style. These are in the minority though, and in November the ultras unveiled a gigantic banner saying “Forza Massimo!”, clearly expressing their support for the Italian.
On the pitch, Carrera has managed to get the most of his stars, and strikers Quincy Promes and Ze Luis are both playing some of the best football of their careers. In 18 games, Dutch international Promes has been directly involved in 16 goals, while Ze Luis has been involved in ten in 17.
Further down the pitch, Denis Glushakov and Fernando form perhaps the strongest central midfield in the league, and their defensive contribution allows the offensive players the freedom needed to succeed. The pair has been fantastic this season, and they could be considered the unsung heroes of the team. Especially Glushakov has stepped up after some slightly disappointing seasons since his move from Lokomotiv in 2012, and all of his five goals have been decisive in Spartak clinching victories in close games.
Despite the truly remarkable season Spartak have had so far, there are however also reason to worry. In recent weeks, there have been signs of the Red-Whites slowing down, and they are yet to deliver a truly convincing performance in the spring. Two weeks ago, they threw away a 2-0 lead at home to FC Orenburg, and had to wait until a 96 minute goal by Promes to secure what looked like a certain victory, why they also looked shaky against FC Ufa last week.
Nevertheless, despite less-impressive performances, Spartak have still managed to pile up the victories, and increase their lead, and facing them in Moscow is perhaps the greatest challenge Zenit have faced this season.
Spartak will have to do without injured back-up striker Denis Davydov, while regular strikers Luiz Adriano and Ze Luis are both doubtful. This could make room for Lorenzo Melgarejo in the starting line-up, who scored against Ufa last week.
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