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Until 2002 the only thing more predictable than FC Spartak Moskva's presence in the UEFA Champions League group stage was their procession to the Russian title. After that date, however, they did not return to the competition proper until last season, and they take on Celtic FC in this year's third qualifying round while chasing their first league crown in five years.
Five points clear with ten Premier-Liga games to go, Spartak welcome the Scottish champions on Wednesday in high spirits having won six and drawn one of their seven domestic matches under Stanislav Cherchesov since his June appointment. Celtic, though, present a formidable challenge having reached the group stage four times since 2001/02 – indeed, last term they progressed to the knockout phase for the first time.
Nonetheless, Spartak midfielder Maxym Kalynychenko is optimistic about his club's first meeting with Scottish opposition. "Both teams' chances are equal," he said. "You only really enjoy your football when you play strong opponents. I'm sure our supporters will see an exciting show because both sides prefer to play attacking football." Martin Jiránek is sidelined until September with an ankle problem while fellow defender Geder has recovered from injury but lacks match sharpness. Better news for Cherchesov is that forward Roman Pavlyuchenko could play with a cast on the right hand he hurt during Saturday's 2-0 win at FC Krylya Sovetov Samara, and captain Yegor Titov should make his 415th Spartak appearance, putting him third on the all-time list.
Celtic hit form on Saturday with a 4-1 victory at Falkirk FC and Mark Brown will continue to deputise for Artur Boruc in goal: although the Poland No1 has travelled to Moscow, he has not overcome his shoulder injury. Manager Gordon Strachan is hoping last season's run will help his team in the two legs against Spartak, not least the 1-0 extra-time defeat by AC Milan that ended Celtic's campaign. "We learned a lot from last year so I'm very confident that we can go and do smashing things as a group," said Strachan. "I don't think there will be much in it. It will be a close tie and hopefully good players will decide the tie."
For Strachan, the synthetic playing surface at the Luzhniki Stadium – the venue for the final on 21 May – will have little influence on the contest. But defender Mark Wilson has been taken by surprise by the searing 30C heat in the Russian capital. "When I first saw the draw, I thought it was going to be cold in Moscow," said Wilson. "But luckily enough we were in America during pre-season and it was the same heat and humidity. We got used to the heat there and so it was good preparation for this game."
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