A week before the end of September, Valeri Karpin was looking pretty pleased with himself. Although there had been one or two slip-ups, notably a 2-1 defeat away to Amkar and a goalless draw with Rubin at home, his Spartak Moscow side had dropped just two further points in their opening 10 games of the Premier League season, and the almost annual hope of a first Spartak title since 2001 – and indeed first trophy of any sort since the 2003 Russian Cup – became to emerge.
That came against the backdrop of Anzhi’s fire sale, Zenit experiencing their usual internal turmoil, and defending champions CSKA failing to strengthen and preparing for the departure of key man Keisuke Honda. Dinamo had failed to gel, Lokomotiv were finding their feet, and the surprise early charge from Rostov was never going to last. Spartak, once again, were up there with the favourites.
Now, just a few months later, such a position is hard to believe. The warning signs were there in their Europa League defeat to Swiss minnows St Gallen, but these days at least one Russian side is expected to fall out of Europe in humiliating fashion. Christmas came with Spartak clinging on to contention, but since the winter break their results would put them in relegation trouble.
Such was the plight of the self-styled people’s club, that they have picked up a measly five points in the nine games since the break, a 1-0 over struggling Krylya Sovetov coupled with a 2-2 draw at Anzhi – where they contrived to throw away a two-goal lead – and a goalless game with title-challenging Lokomotiv. In between, defeats to the likes of Terek, Tom and Rubin, not to mention a 4-0 hammering at the hands of Krasnodar and the humiliation of a home defeat to Ural, have seen Russia’s most decorated club slip to European also-rans rather than domestic giants.
The pattern now is becoming a familiar one, and ultimately cost Karpin his job, and not for the first time. Trying to finally return the silverware that owner Leonid Fedun and the fans expect each year, being knocked out of the cup by third-tier Tosno – effectively one of Zenit’s farm clubs – proved to be the final straw, the legendary playmaker earning the sack days later after the capitulation against Anzhi.
On this occasion, unlike previously, there is unlikely to be a return for Karpin. On past occasions, he has been replaced by a manager handpicked by himself, only to assume caretaker and subsequently permanent responsibilities upon their dismissal. Unai Emery was another experiment which failed to reinvigorate the Muscovites, and Karpin’s caretaker arrangement was made long-term. This time, with another failure on his CV, Karpin looks to have been removed from any further consideration – with his record, he is unlikely to see employment in a managerial capacity elsewhere.
Instead, the inexperienced Dmitri Gunko was handed the reigns to the end of the season, with rumours of Roberto Mancini coming to nought. His first game was the 4-0 embarrassment in Krasnodar, and quickly rumours began to gather speed regarding Stanislav Cherchesov, the former Spartak goalkeeper who coached the side in years gone by, and had overseen Amkar’s impressive rise up the table after his exploits at Terek the year before.
However, whereas in previous years Spartak would have got their man with few questions asked, weeks later Cherchesov was revealed to the press as the new manager of arch-rivals Dinamo. With the man himself expressing his lifelong devotion to Spartak in interviews, his appearance on the sidelines for their hated enemies speaks volumes of Spartak’s decline in domestic terms.
Chechesov’s snub makes it even less likely that Spartak will attract the top European manager their fans would prefer in the absence of an outstanding Russian candidate. Mancini was bandied about in vain, while Zenit moved quickly to secure the signature of Andre Villas-Boas. Dinamo stole Cherchesov, CSKA have the most promising young Russian manager in Leonid Slutsky, while Lokomotiv are prospering under the guidance of the Belarusian Leonid Kuchuk. Gunko, with no experience, is a nobody in comparison.
His presence has clearly failed to breathe life into the time, recording just a solitary victory in his brief time in charge. Yura Movsisyan, the team’s top goalscorer, has been starved of service, while the creativity of the likes of Jose Jurado, Denis Glushakov and Aras Ozbiliz has been stifled completely by Spartak’s inability to take control of games. With one of the most expensive and, on paper at least, talented squads in the Russian game, Spartak’s consistent failure is the subject of great enquiry.
The truth of the matter is this – Spartak are no longer the draw they once were. Yes, they will continue to have one of the strongest attendance records in the post-Soviet game, and they will forever cling to the domination of the 1990s under Oleg Romantsev, but in today’s game their success has been consistently limited by the simple virtue of superior opponents.
Zenit can boast better resources and, under Andre Villas-Boas, something approaching dressing room unity after years of question marks under the successful but controversial control of Luciano Spalletti. CSKA and Slutsky have stability and a solid Russian core, Lokomotiv have merged from their slumber under Kuchuk, while Dinamo are bankrolled by the billionaire Rotenbergs. Elsewhere, Krasnodar have their own billionaire, and one who seems keen to see his club grow more organically than is often expected chairmen. Even midtable provincial clubs – the likes of Rostov and Amkar – have shown they are no longer scared of playing their own game against Spartak, and the inability to strike fear into an opponent have been a huge loss. In Europe, they have gone from the post-Soviet team to avoid to something of a joke, and their future destination, if any, will surely be the Europa League rather than the prestigious Champions League.
So, what can Spartak do to return to their former glories? With the sheer amounts of money being splashed at Zenit and the improvements being made elsewhere, it is no easy question to answer. The fans demand a cull of the expensive, ‘mercenary’ foreigners and a promotion of youth, something the club have not always been great at following through with. Their youth sides are successful and do deserve a chance, but it is the identity that requires a rethink. Not dissimilarly to Manchester United in England, Spartak can no longer expect teams to roll over, to be psyched out before the game. Victories must be earned, respect regained.
The fans, particularly the hardcore ‘ultras,’ will not like it, but Spartak could well face a period in the wilderness. Lose the entitlement, give opportunities to the youth, develop a solid, attacking playing style, and rely on the club’s history not to demand instant success, but to coax in the best of Russian and overseas talent available. Lose the superiority complex, lose the fear of the badge, and lose the demand for instant gratification – maybe, just maybe, Spartak can make it back from here.