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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Leeds Game Is Vital For Spartak, Russia




For some, Spartak Moscow's matchup against England's Leeds United on Thursday is more than just a game.


The last game of the year in Russia is the last chance for Russian soccer to make amends in a dismal year that saw the national side fail to qualify for Euro 2000 and Spartak limp out with a third place showing in what was regarded as the weakest Champions League group.


The stakes are so high that Spartak supporter and former First Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Shokhin has linked Thursday's first-leg, third-round game to the war in Chechnya this week, saying Spartak had to match the people's mood - which he claimed was on a high because of the fighting in the Caucasus - by scoring a victory over the English.


"They have no right [to lose]," he said on NTV television on Sunday.


So, it should be gloves off for Spartak - if only metaphorically speaking, as weather reports predict that it will be minus 12 degrees Celsius - but Spartak coach Oleg Romantsev is finding the team hard to motivate.


"There's very little emotion," Romantsev said last week.


The game is a bit of a comedown after the delights of the Champions League, but Leeds is arguably a better side than any of the teams Spartak faced in that competition.


Romantsev has described Leeds as one of the quickest in Europe and the most powerful in Britain.


The Yorkshire club fields a young side that has been one of the highlights of this season's English premier league. Currently second, manager David O'Leary has sensibly kept up his mantra that the team is too inexperienced to win the league or go far in Europe, but it will fancy its chances of getting past a Spartak side playing without its best player - midfielder Andrei Tikhonov - who is serving a suspension after being sent off during Spartak's Champions League loss to Sparta Prague.


In comparison, Spartak is a slower, less athletic team but one with a lot of heart and experience that usually plays better against an opposition it respects - two years ago, it outplayed both Real Madrid and Inter Milan at home.


But few journalists or fans seem to have much confidence in Spartak.


NTV spent an hour discussing 'How to Beat the English?' on Sunday night and apart from criticizing the Leeds defense for being 'primitive,' was pessimistic about Spartak's chances.


One solution: Commentators joked that Spartak should have offered to move the game to Grozny to scare the Leeds team away.


(An idea to move it to the warmer climes of Vladikavkaz - 60 kilometers from Grozny - drew a swift and not very happy response from Leeds.)


Instead, the game has been moved from Spartak's usual home at Luzhniki Stadium to the smaller Dynamo Stadium, where the crowd is unlikely to top 20,000 due to the subzero temperatures.


With ball control set to be virtually impossible, Spartak doesn't think the conditions favor it - the Russian premier division never plays this late in the year - and expects to have almost as much trouble as Leeds on the icy pitch.


Spartak's Dmitry Khlestov and Robson have already sustained injuries from training on rock-hard pitches, and Spartak heads off for a nine-day visit to comparatively sunny England within days of the first leg to ready for the return game.


There was talk that Spartak would try for a draw in the first leg and then go for victory at Elland Road but Romantsev said Friday that he had too little confidence in his defense to attempt that and said the side's usual open attacking game was his only option.


Spice was added to the matchup as Spartak press attach? Alexander Lvov attacked Leeds for ungentlemanly behavior in a front-page piece in Tuesday's Sport Express. The Yorkshire club faxed two letters to Spartak, according to Lvov, complaining that its pregame visit had been a waste of money and that on its arrival Tuesday evening, it did not want to be met at the airport, given a police escort or given help with the hotel.


Playing English clubs has always been lucky for Spartak and the Muscovites have yet to lose in eight meetings. The game that started that run 17 years ago was a 3-2 win over Arsenal in Moscow. Hopefully, that's a good omen for Spartak: The two captains that day were Leeds coach David O'Leary and Romantsev, and Spartak ran out 8-4 winners on aggregate.


As Sport Express Football magazine put it, "Of course, they are only statistics ... but we remember how conservative the English are and how much they love tradition."


Dynamo Stadium, Tickets cost 40 to 120 rubles, 8 p.m., 36 Leningradsky Prospekt, Metro: Dynamo.