As this blog has previously explored, it is very rare in Russia that a team’s goalkeeper is the hero of the day. All too often the villain of the peace, it is at least acknowledged that the man between the sticks is one of the main men on the field – the official Russian song for Euro 2012 describes the goalkeeper as ‘half of the team’ – he is regularly lambasted as the culprit, the scapegoat for defeat and the object of abuse and ridicule for weeks and months to come. In the case of Alexander Filimonov, a single error can signal the end of a career.
Filimonov played for Spartak at the time of his most unfortunate mistake, and within a year he was moved on, ironically enough moving to Kyiv before continuing his career in Elista and moving to Moscow once more. However, whilst city rivals CSKA have enjoyed the services of national team stalwart, and champions Zenit can rely on the safe hands of Vyacheslav Malafeev, Spartak have not always been as fortunate. The latest solution to the eternal problem is Andriy Dikan, the Ukrainian shot stopper brought in from Terek two years ago to fill the void left by Stipe Pletikosa, another goalkeeper not known for his consistency.
Dikan is not universally loved by fans of the Meat, nor can commentators and analysts seem to decide whether he is an asset or a liability for Unai Emery’s side. Ultimately, a goalkeeper can only be judged by how many they concede, and in last year’s transitional season Dikan’s Spartak ended with a record of 48 conceded from 44 games – by no means a terrible record, but at the same time it placed the defense which finished 2nd just 6th in terms of goals against, suggesting that Dikan could well be part of a defensive problem which needed solving if Spartak were to mount a genuine title challenge in the current campaign.
Juan Insuarralde came into the back line and Romulo arrived to anchor the midfield, but as seems to be the way with the bigger teams, the key reinforcements came in the attacking third of the pitch, and the defensive aspect of Emery’s squad still resembles that of the departed Valeri Karpin more than he would like to admit. With the Champions League to qualify for, it would be a real test of his back line’s abilities.
Turkish giants Fenerbahce came to stand between Spartak and the all-important group stage, a tough task made all the more difficult by the notoriously hostile crowds awaiting them in Istanbul. It was in the home leg, with the score at 1-0 thanks to an Emmanuel Emenike goal, that Dikan managed to become the hate figure of the week in Spartak circles – inexplicably racing from his goal after misjudging a deep cross, the Ukrainian goalkeeper gave Moussa Sow the chance to nod the ball into the path of the unopposed Dirk Kuyt, and the Dutchman made no mistake when presented with an unguarded net. Although Dmitri Kombarov would win the game with a fine volley, Kuyt’s away goal put a damper on the Muscovites’ celebrations with the away leg still to play.
So, with the return leg in Istanbul fast approaching, it became apparent that Dikan would have to do something special to redeem himself int he eyes of the Spartak faithful. After all, having been spoiled by the Romantsev era and the dominance of the 1990s, a second consecutive year without Champions League football would be simply unthinkable for those who take their seats in the Luzhniki each week, and qualification is the bare minimum – although the standard has undoubtedly been raised over the past decade, there are still those who see Spartak as automatically deserving of a place in the final stages. When Ari tucked home Aiden McGeady’s cross in just the 6th minute, the need for redemption looked to be vanishing.
However, if there is one Russian club which has made a habit of putting its fans through the mill in recent years, it is Spartak Moscow. After a relatively comfortable first half which saw little of the ball but no threat from the hosts, the second period seemed to awaken a different Fenerbahce team, the Turks surging forward time after time. Dikan needed to be at his best, and he was – a skidding drive from outside the box pushed out and the rebound clawed away, a long range effort tipped acrobatically onto the crossbar, a corner emphatically punched clear. Even that would not be enough.
Moussa Sow did manage to beat him, diverting a header beyond the Ukrainian with 20 minutes still to play. Demy de Zeeuw ruined an excellent performance by picking up a second yellow card, and Spartak’s backs were firmly to the wall. Memories of the weekend’s capitulation in Grozny sprang to mind, Spartak conceding twice in the last 10 minutes to deny themselves top spot, and other fans remembered last year’s Europa League debacle – blowing a two goal lead at home to Legia Warsaw in an hour. The modern Spartak fan is understandably a pessimist, but this time Dikan kept coming to the rescue, denying the home side on a number of occasions. In total, Fenerbahce would record 16 shots on target – Dikan repelled all but one.
The 35-year old’s heroic performance turned out to be enough to send Spartak into the group stage of the Champions League, where can look forward to another round of matches with some of Europe’s finest – Barcelona, Benfica and Celtic to be precise – after a lengthy absence. For Dikan, it was the performance that will transform him from villain to hero. At least until next week.