Luzhniki Stadium, Spartak’s makeshift home since the 1970s, will be closed in a few weeks so that a grass pitch can be installed in time to host the Rugby World Cup Sevens in late June and Track & Field World Championships in mid-August. After tomorrow’s clash with Anzhi, the Red-Whites have just one more match at Luzhniki this season, against Krylia Sovetov on May 10. They’ll host Alania on May 26 across town in Torpedo’s cozy Eduard Streltsov Stadium.
Despite a cavernous design that makes even the best seats feel distant from the pitch, Luzhniki has played host to many of Russian football’s greatest encounters. Spartak – CSKA, the nation’s top derby since the break-up of the Soviet Union, has almost always been held here, Chelsea and Manchester United squared off in the 2009 Champions League Final in Luzhniki, while other clubs such as CSKA, Torpedo, Rubin and Anzhi have also called the 76,000-seat arena home.
Tragedy struck here, as well, on the cusp of perestroika. On a bitterly cold October evening in 1982, 16,000 fans showed up to cheer on Spartak against Haarlem in the UEFA Cup. Near the end of the match, a massive crush of fans at one exit ended in at least 66 fatalities and 61 injuries, the worst disaster in Russian football history.
The incident was kept under wraps by the Soviet government, with many in the West, including Haarlem players, unaware of what happened until 1989. For Spartak fans, the tragedy has remained a major source of contention with authorities. Just last fall, fans were disgusted when the city of Moscow scheduled a police sports festival at Luzhniki Stadium on the day of the 30-year anniversary, hindering commemorations for those killed.
With 2018 fast approaching, plans are still up in the air for the nation’s most historic stadium, scheduled to host the World Cup Final. Some reports say the venue will remain closed for renovations following the Track & Field Champs. The pitch may be lowered several meters into the ground and the angle of the stands increased, allowing for additional and more intimate seating. It’s also possible that football will be played here once again in fall 2013, while architects and World Cup planners haggle over the final stadium design.
Even if that’s the case, Spartak, so closely associated with the arena on the banks of the Moscow River, are scheduled to move into the brand-new Otkritie Arena in spring 2014, the club’s first stadium of its own.
And, so, Spartak welcome Anzhi tomorrow to what may be the club’s biggest remaining match at Luzhniki. In just three years, since Anzhi returned to the Premier League in 2010, the two clubs have built up a decent history, but Sunday’s showdown may be the most important yet, with Anzhi looking to preserve a top-3 finish and Spartak craving a positive end to a season that promised so much late last August.
After cruising to three straight victories to open the 2012/13 campaign, and edging out Fenerbahce for a place in the Champions League, Spartak tumbled as low as 8th in the table, fired head coach Unai Emery, and finished last in its Champions League group. They are now tied for 5th with Rubin and Terek, separated by six points from 3rd-placed Anzhi.
Spartak are coming off last week’s 2-2 derby draw with CSKA, in which they led 2-0 only to concede two late penalties. Manager Valery Karpin earned a three-match suspension for yelling at the officiating crew as they left the pitch, and Spartak fans will no doubt remember well last October’s loss to Anzhi in Makhachkala that saw Kirill Kombarov sent off early in the 2nd half and a total of six yellows handed out to the visitors.
Anzhi, meanwhile, can also point to last season’s sensational 3-0 victory over Spartak at Luzhniki as encouragement. The Dagestani club squandered its title hopes back in March with losses to Mordovia and Krasnodar, but still has a chance of catching Zenit for 2nd and a Champions League place. Even if the Champions League is out of reach, Anzhi need a result in Moscow to maintain firm grip on 3rd and the club’s best-ever finish in the Russian Premier League.
Forward Emmanuel Emenike, and midfielders Jano Ananidze and Jose Jurado are all back for Spartak, while forward Yura Movsisyan is injured, and Marek Suchy and Rafael Carioca are unavailable due to suspension.
As for the visitors, midfielder Mbarak Boussoufa is out due to suspension and defender Andrey Eschenko continues his lengthy rehab from an ACL tear, while midfielder Lassana Diarra and foward Lacina Traore should be available after recovering from minor injuries.
A cool kick-off temperature of 12 C is expected in Moscow, with a light rain possible. There won’t be 67,000 fans at Luzhniki tomorrow, like at last week’s derby, but Anzhi and Spartak both crave a victory to generate momentum for the season’s final push. Playing in the country’s largest arena on national television, the intensity on the field is guaranteed to match the hype. Legendary club vs wealthy upstart; Moscow vs Caucasus. This is one Russian Premier League match you simply cannot miss.
Author: Andy Shenk
I discovered football when my family moved to Russia in the early 2000′s. I’ll never forget sprinting around my house after Russia qualified for Euro 2008, belting out the Russian national anthem. Since 2011, I’ve supported Anzhi in all its inspiring glory and heartbreaking dysfunction. Also Andrei Eschenko’s #1 American fan.