The long road to Wembley begins tomorrow night when Barça play Spartak Moscow at Camp Nou in the first round of Champions League Group G. Tito Vilanova is without the injured Andres Iniesta and Carlos Puyol but Barça demonstrated in the 1-4 victory over Getafe on Saturday that there is plenty of strength in depth.
If you grew up in Moscow under communism then Spartak were the team to support. The other clubs in Moscow were all connected in some way to the state. CSKA were the team of the army while Dynamo were associated with the KGB and Lokomotiv with the transport ministry. Only Spartak had no such connections and thus became known as the people’s team, to support Spartak was a way of saying no to the system.
Spartak won three of the first five titles after the USSR league was formed in 1936 but it was always going to be tough for them to compete against the state teams, especially when club founder, the great Nikolai Starostin, was whisked away in the night by the secret police during Stalin’s great purge in 1942. There were better times for Spartak in the 1950s when four more leagues were won, but they then only managed five more league titles between 1960 and the fall of communism in 1989.
Spartak came good in the 1990s winning the Russian league nine times out of ten (every year from 1992 to 2001 except for in 1995). However, despite finishing 2nd five times since 2001 they have failed to regain the title as sides from outside Moscow such as Zenit St Petersburg and Rubin Kazan have come to dominate. In 2009 ex-Valencia and Celta star Valery Karpin took over as first team coach, and this summer Karpin became the club’s executive director and using his old contacts at Valencia contracted Unai Emery as first team coach.
So far the results are not great, after finishing second last season Spartak have started the 2012/13 campaign slowly and are currently only seventh in the Russian league. They have a limited squad with the main name of note being Irish international Aiden McGeady who won the Scottish Player of the Year award in 2008 when playing for Celtic. Their forwards don’t look too intimidating, there is a Brazilian called Ari who has only scored once this season while the Nigerian Emmanuel Eminike who scored in Saturday’s 2-2 draw at Kuban Krasnodar and also in the Champions League qualifying win over Fenerbahce, looks to be more in form. They also have Dimitriy Kombarov and the Argentinian defender Nico Parejo as players to watch out for.
However, there really should not be too many difficulties for Barça to take the three points. David Villa looks set to finally get a start this season which should see a return of the MVP attacking trio which did so well in the 2010/11 season, while Vilanova will have to make the complicated choice between Fabregas and Thiago for who replaces Iniesta in midfield. Given Cesc’s recent loss of confidence it would seem a good idea to play him after his more promising performance against Getafe. Thiago may well end up moving above Cesc in the pecking order but for now I feel everything should be done to help Fabregas rediscover his best form. With Puyol out the defence more or less picks itself though of course Jordi Alba could get another start. However, Adriano is playing very well and should be rewarded with another start which would see a possible starting line up of Valdés, Alves, Piqué, Mascherano, Adriano, Xavi, Busquets, Fabregas, Pedro, Messi, Villa.
The last time the teams met at Camp Nou was in the Champions League in March 1994 when Ronald Koeman scored two direct free kick goals as Barça won 5-1. We should be capable of a similar score tomorrow.
My prediction: Barça 4 Spartak Moscow 0