Having won nine Russian titles since independence, the last two seasons have been something of a comedown for FC Spartak Moskva. With mid-table finishes in 2003 and 2004, they missed out on European competition for the first time since 1979, but the most popular team in the country are rising from their torpor.
Midway through last season, main shareholder Andrei Chervichenko sold the club to new owners, with vice-president Leonid Fedun taking over as chairman of the board. With the club lying second in the Russian Premier-Liga it seems the change of personnel has done Spartak good.
As soon as he took charge, Fedun dismissed coach Nevio Scala in order to give a new coach a few months to settle into the job before the 2005 campaign. Former Latvia coach Aleksandrs Starkovs duly became the fifth man to lead the team in two seasons following Oleg Romantsev, Andrei Chernyshov, Scala and caretaker Vladimir Fedotov.
Having taken a limited Latvia squad to the finals of UEFA EURO 2004™, Starkovs got used to his new side in the final eight games of the 2004 season before beginning the serious challenge of fulfilling the club's owners' target of a top-two finish in 2005.
Thanks to a healthy transfer war-chest, Starkovs signed Argentinians Clemente Rodríguez and Fernando Cavenaghi, Serbo-Montenegrin Nemanja Vidic and Czech Martin Jíranek last summer, and also brought Spartak academy graduate Dmitri Alenichev back to the club fresh from his UEFA Champions League triumph with FC Porto.
This winter the spending continued with Russian international Denis Boyarintsev and Czech Radoslav Kovac being signed while Austrian Emanuel Pogatetz joined on loan from Bayer 04 Leverkusen. Lesser lights like Latvian international Andrejs Rubins, Moldovan international Serghei Covalciuc and Russian youth internationals Nikita Bazhenov and Dmitri Khomich also joined the club.
However, the most heralded new player at Starkovs' command was Yegor Titov who finally became eligible to turn out for the club again after his year-long ban for taking a banned substance. The two-time Russian Player of the Year is for many the link between the successful Spartak of old and the new-look side.
With so many players arriving in a short space of time, it is perhaps hardly surprising that Spartak have not been models of consistency. As devastating as they proved to be in their 5-1 win against FC Dinamo Moskva, they have dropped their share of clangers with a 2-1 defeat against lowly FC Alania Vladikavkaz probably the worst of them.
The quartet of Rodríguez, Vidic, Jíranek and Pogatetz may be the most expensive back four in Russia but they are still conceding a goal a game and seem to still lack cohesion at times - something that has not pleased Spartak fans. However, so far, the team's firepower going forward has covered for any frailty in defence. After eleven games, Spartak are the highest scoring team in the low-scoring Russian league with 20 goals, nine of them being shared by strike partners Cavenaghi and Roman Pavlyuchenko.
Champions FC Lokomotiv Moskva are still unbeaten at the top of the table while UEFA Cup winners PFC CSKA Moskva are sure to be back in contention once they have played their games in hand, but with the European season set to divert their main rivals in the autumn, Russia's favourite side may be ready to reclaim their place at the top of the Premier-Liga.
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