FC Spartak Moskva's UEFA Europa League visit to AFC Ajax will evoke memories of one of the club's finest European performances, particularly for Valeri Karpin's assistant coach Andrei Tikhonov.
Tikhonov was a 27-year-old midfielder when the Muscovites travelled to the recently-opened Amsterdam ArenA for a UEFA Cup quarter-final first leg in March 1998. An Ajax team featuring current coach Frank de Boer and his assistant Danny Blind were clear favourites to progress, yet were beaten 3-1 at home and 1-0 away by a Spartak side whose run was ended by FC Internazionale Milano in the last four.
Speaking to UEFA.com before departing for the Netherlands, Tikhonov recalled that first-leg win: "My first impression of that match was the stadium. It was new and beautiful. The roof was closed because of the rain and we felt like we were playing indoors.
"Ajax were more highly rated than us and we realised just how good they were in the opening 15 minutes. They were on the front foot the whole time while we were struggling to get forward at all, but we counterattacked well and once we had scored twice we started to play more comfortably."
Although De Boer and Blind featured, it was another future coach – and one who would manage Spartak for seven months from September 2008 – who made the greatest mark on Tikhonov. "I don't remember De Boer or Blind's performance that well, because they had so many stars in that side, but
Michael Laudrup left the biggest impression; everything he did showed what a great leader he was."
Aleksandr Shirko struck twice in the first leg and Valeri Ketchinov also was on target, Shirko following his double up with the only goal of the return at a sold-out Dynamo Stadium. "After winning in the Netherlands we felt more confident," continued Tikhonov. "In fact we felt euphoric, and feeling that good helps you win."
Turning his attention to Thursday's round of 16 first leg, the 40-year-old Tikhonov said: "Ajax and Spartak have a huge army of fans and there is massive interest in our match.
An away goal is precious, so I'm sure that the Dutch side will defend with great care. Since De Boer took over they have been very organised, especially in defence."
Twelve years ago Ajax were strongly fancied to go through, but this time there appears to be little to choose between the sides. "I think we have an even chance," said Tikhonov. "We are better than we showed against Basel [in the previous round]. We have less injured players, Welliton and Ibson are back from suspension and we have now also played several competitive matches."
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