Just a point off the top of the table at the spring restart, Russia's most popular club have hit serious turbulence in 2014, with FC Spartak Moskva's dreams of a first title since 2001 – and a tenth since independence – fading.
Coach Valeri Karpin left by mutual consent last week after three poor results: a 1-0 loss at FC Terek Grozny, a 1-0 Russian Cup exit at the hands of third division FC Tosno and a 2-2 home draw with the Premier-Liga's bottom side FC Anji Makhachkala. "I think we have a team that can win trophies," said a downcast Karpin. "It is pity we have played only a few matches with our full squad because of injuries."
Asked who would be best equipped to replace him, the 45-year-old said wryly: "José Mourinho and Josep Guardiola." As it is, Karpin was succeeded in the short term by assistant Dmitri Gunko, who oversaw Saturday's 4-0 loss at FC Krasnodar in his first game – a result which had the Russian press queuing up to pile on the misery. "I would like to apologise to the fans for the performance at Krasnodar," said 38-year-old former defender Gunko afterwards. "We have a week and will do everything to come back from this difficult situation."
The big question for most supporters is whether Spartak will hire a new coach before the end of term – Stanislav Cherchesov has already been sounded out – or whether Gunko will have a chance to redeem himself in Sunday's trip to table-topping FC Lokomotiv Moskva. Whoever is at the helm faces significant challenges – restoring confidence the first of them. Former Spartak midfielder Andrei Tikhonov was not the only one feeling intense frustration. "It is bad when you cannot do anything," the 43-year-old complained. "Watching some players, I do not see any great desire to play."
There are also fundamental team issues to address. Sergei Pesyakov and Artem Rebrov both had stints in goal before 18-year-old Anton Mitryushkin took over as No1 at the start of the year. None have shone, with fans clamouring for 36-year-old Andriy Dykan – still unused this campaign – to be returned to the lineup for the final games. Defence is also a problem area: most expected improvements once Salvatore Bocchetti, Romulo and Serdar Tasci regained full fitness, but that has been anything but the case.
However, for all their current problems, Spartak remain in a strong position. A weekend win at Lokomotiv would bring them within four points of the summit, and with Loko and second-placed FC Zenit to meet before the end of the season, a top-two finish – and UEFA Champions League berth – are not beyond the realms of fantasy. In theory, Spartak have a decent-looking run-in. It might not necessarily take a Mourinho or Guardiola to turn things around.
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