Europa League Preview: Spartak Moscow – Athletic Club

Spartak’s replesedent new home, the 44,000 seater Otkrytie Arena | Открытие Арена

Spartak Moscow – Athletic Club – Thursday 15 February, 18:00 GMT – Otkritie Arena, Moscow.

Spartak Moscow failed to earn a seeding for the Europa League knockouts and thus are forced to faceoff against Group J winners Athletic Club. Athletic are a club with enormous heritage in the competition, having reached the semi-final in 2012, the quarters in 2014 and 2016, and star striker Aritz Aduriz is the fifth highest goalscorer in the competition’s history with 28 in just 43 games – and has five already this season alone.

Spartak is still a side of Champions League pedigree and genuine quality at times, but inconsistent. They are as capable of defeating Sevilla 5-1 in the group stages as they are losing to the same scoreline. It is sure to be a fascinating tie by two very evenly matched teams. If you check out reputable betting sites like Unibet, Spartak are favourites at around 2.40.

The weather aided the heroic Soviet defence during World War Two, and expect it again on Thursday night where temperatures are expected to reach anywhere from 5°C to 8°C, even though Denis Glushakov played this down.

Tactical Analysis

Expect a 4-4-2 come 4-2-3-1 with Zé Luis most advanced and Luiz Adriano slightly withdrawn, combining lethally with Quincy Promes and either Aleksandr Samedov or Roman Zobnin, the former are both granted the freedom and space to cut inside or drift wide by the front two’s clever movement whereas Zobnin cuts inside and overloads the middle of the park. The attack is the sharpest weapon in Massimo Carrera’s armoury, just look here at how three of the four combined for Spartak’s second goal against Zenit before the break. His side has scored 52 goals in all competitions already this season, with Promes leading the way on fifteen (as well as eight assists).

However, Spartak have suffered defensively this season, especially late on in games. This is in part due to their ageing squad (Denis Glushakov, Kombarov, Andrei Eschenko, Samedov, Luiz Adriano and Serdar Tasci are all aged 30 or over), but also their inability to defend transitions.They have come unstuck on numerous occasions by counter-attacks, and although Aduriz is an aerial powerhouse with little pace, Athletic’s effective high press, pace and ability to hold onto the ball out wide and Iker Muniain, Iñaki Williams, Iñigo Córdoba and Markel Susaeta may cause a few problems. Raul García and Iñigo Lekue get forward and support the front three (whoever is chosen to flank Aduriz) as much as possible, with all designed to find the centrsl striker as effectively as possible, swinging balls early or driven across into dangerous positions in order to take advantage of his wonderful aerial prowess without putting too much stress on the 37-year-old’s legs.

Athletic focus upon ball retention, but have slightly shifted their style since Aymeric Laporte’s transfer to Manchester City,  as his replacement – the controversial signing of Basque rival Real Sociedad captain for €32m – Iñigo Martínez is not quite as technically strong on the ball.

Carrera actually lines Spartak up similarly; they retain possession deep, attack explosively and builds off the strikers’ physicality. This play relies upon his two centre-backs to progress the ball higher up the pitch. Serdar Tasci and Georgi Dzhikiya shift wide as the fullbacks push up high and Fernando drops deep to provide vertical, penetrative passing lanes very similar to Conte’s Chelsea. Dzhikiya is particularly impressive at progressing the ball up the pitch by advancing with the ball at feet through the midfield half-spaces, which is why he was preferred to Ilya Kutepov during the run-in last season and kept his place ever since, however, he has recently badly injured his ACL, and will be a miss for Spartak in both defense and the transition into attacking situations.

Fernando dictates Spartak’s style of play and tempo with his keen ball retention and physical abilities while Denis Glushakov breaks forward as a box-to-box midfielder roaming between the half-spaces and eases the pressure upon Fernando. Zé Luis up front is the target man and attacking base; expected to drop deep, hold-up the ball and drag defenders out of position to create space for Promes, Adriano, Samedov and Lorenzo Melgarejo and to exploit, with late runs from Glushakov. Dima Kombarov (especially) and Andrei Eschenko provide the width as the two attacking wingers cut-in to overload these half-spaces vacated by Zé Luis.

Team News

Spartak is missing key defender Georgi Dhikiya, as aforementioned, who picked up a nasty ACL injury in the friendly game against Shanghai SIPG while on a winter training camp in Abu Dhabi. He will almost certainly miss the rest of the season and is a huge doubt for his home World Cup in the summer. Georgi Tigiev continues his own rehabilitation from a different ACL injury picked up early on in the season, while Jano Ananidze continues to be a constant sicknote.

Athletic are likewise without a star player due to a ruptured ACL; enigmatic winger Iker Muniain injured hi back in September. Iñaki Williams is doubtful for the game after recovering from injury, but is expected to play a part. Full-back Mikel Balenziaga also misses out through a muscle injury, as does Martínez who featured for Real Sociedad in the competition before making the controversial switch.

Key Players

Quincy Promes – What more needs to be said about the Dutchman? Voted RFN 2017 Player of the Year in the recent Top 50, he is bar-none the best player in the nation right now and registered a breathtaking 33 goals and assists in 35 games for club and country in 2017. Southampton was interested in his services in January, but he stayed and the Muscovites should be boosted by this alone.

Serdar Tasci – Tasci needs to come to the fore in the second half of the season with Dzhikiya’s injury. Nikola Maksimović has been drafted in from Napoli and is expected to go into the side ahead of Ilya Kutepov and Salvatore Bocchetti, but the German central defender needs to show the leadership and ability of his prime in the Bundesliga before moving to the RFPL in the Georgian’s absence.

Denis Glushakov – Glushakov quite literally fired Spartak to the title at times in the second-half of 2016/17, playing the best football of his career. If Spartak is to advance, the combative midfielder needs to carry out more of the same – and his form was peaking just at the right time just before the long and disruptive (but necessary) break.

Predicted Lineup

Spartak Moscow, 4-4-2: Aleksander Selikhov, Andrei Eschenko, Serdar Tasci, Nikola Maksimović, Dimitry Kombarov – Fernando, Denis Glushakov – Quincy Promes, Roman Zobnin – Zé Luis, Luiz Adriano.

Prediction

Spartak go into this game in a difficult position; they have not played competitive football since 11th December, and haven’t won in 11 Europa League games, however, on the other hand, were in a rich vein of form before the long break and likewise how only won once at home all season.

Spartak is a side who simply cannot defend counter-attack’s effectively, and last time out were torn apart by arguably the most potent counter-attacking force in Europe. Athletic, however, play much more measured and are a good fit for Spartak.

The Red-Whites typically perform better against those who come out and attack, having put five past Sevilla and Spartak Nalchik (who really came out and attacked the Russian champions, eventually losing out 5-2), four past Krasnodar and three past Zenit St. Petersburg and Lokomotiv Moscow this season.

Athletic are much more consistent and solid at both ends; the Spanish side has only lost one of their last 11 matches but hasn’t won in over a month. They have only lost one of their last seven away matches, but have only won three times on the road since the start of September.

Spartak Moscow 2 – 1 Athletic Club

Author: James Nickels

Born and raised in South Shields, the direct mid-point between Sunderland and Newcastle in North-East England during an era of sustained success and European football for the Magpies, while the Black Cats floundered in the lower divisions, so naturally I decided to support Sunderland. I’ve developed an interest in Russian football over the last decade or so, but it piqued while studying for my Masters’ Degree in Russian and Soviet History, and I’ve been hooked by Spartak Moscow ever since. Considers Eduard Streltsov the best of his generation, and a fond proponent of his repatriation.

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