Until recently the UEFA Champions League did not seem complete without FC Spartak Moskva. Winning the Russian league nine times out of ten from 1992 made them group-stage regulars. Since November 2002, however, Spartak have been conspicuous by their absence. That could soon change.
In the past two years the club have undergone a rebuilding process that is beginning to bear fruit. With Vladimir Fedotov as sports director and experienced Latvian Aleksandrs Starkovs as coach they drew 1-1 at FC Lokomotiv Moskva last November to secure a UEFA Champions League qualifying place. When Starkovs left earlier this season - Russia's 2006 campaign started in the spring - Fedotov stepped into the breach and has not lost a game.
Spartak are joint second in the Premier-Liga and also looking good in Europe, where a 1-1 draw against FC Sheriff in Moldova in the first leg of their second qualifying round tie has brought the group stage that little bit closer. "We're a solid team, which we have been building for over two years," said sports director Stanislav Cherchesov - Spartak's goalkeeper in their heyday. "Building a team is a long and difficult process. It can't be rushed and it can't be forced from the outside. We just need to work every day, and that's what we're doing."
Known as the People's Team as their origins were independent of the old Soviet regime, Spartak, whose name derives from Spartacus, were 13-times USSR champions but came of age in the post-Communist commercial world. In 1995/96 they won all six UEFA Champions League group-stage matches with a 15-4 goal difference, a record that has not been bettered. In 2002, though, the wheels fell off. Spartak's first group stage campaign was a disaster with six defeats and 18 goals conceded. Spartak also lost the Russian title and have not won it since. Indeed, from 2003 until this term, their only European adventure was a UEFA Intertoto Cup run in 2004.
Spartak had spent heavily at the start of the millennium in a bid to maintain their lofty status. But investments such as the €10m paid to CA River Plate for striker Fernando Cavenaghi did not always pay off. Scouting and signings are now more rigidly controlled, and a measured rebuilding programme has proved successful. Spartak are on the rise again. "I think we have a very decent squad," said Fedetov. "Of course having two competitive lineups, one for Russia and one for Europe, is utopian, but we have the necessary minimum of top-class players. There is also competition for places."
Minds are focused on just one thing. "We need to think only about the next hurdle, and that's Sheriff," Cherchesov warned. Spartak legends such as Cherchesov and Yegor Titov, a scorer against Madrid in 1998 and Arsenal in 2001 who has returned to form after a 12-month doping ban, are quick to urge caution given Spartak's recent traumas. And there is another hurdle to overcome - a psychological one of regaining the winning mentality of the 1990s.
"It is obvious the winning traditions have been lost," Cherchesov said. "The current Spartak need to win something to become a real team. This needn't be a championship or a Russian Cup, it can be something less important to the outside world but meaningful to the players themselves." Beating Sheriff and moving one step closer to the group stage would do for starters.
This is an abridged version of an article that appears in this week's edition of the uefa.com Magazine. To read the feature in full, click here.
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