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Acting manager: now it's time to get real

ON a balmy September night at Camp Nou, shirt-sleeved Barcelona fans looked on in bemusement as Spartak Moscow's Brazilian midfielder Romulo took a neat pass inside the area and drilled the ball past Victor Valdes.

Ari reacts to Spartak's defeat by Celtic in the Luzhniki Stadium
Ari reacts to Spartak's defeat by Celtic in the Luzhniki Stadium

The Russians were consequently leading the Catalans on match day one of group G in the Champions League.

This bright, incredible development was routinely rendered irrelevant by two goals from Lionel Messi, but the 3-2 final scoreline only serves to hint at the depths to which Spartak have fallen since that 60th-minute goal in the early, hopeful days of what has proved to be a dispiriting campaign.

Spartak Moscow will march out tonight at Celtic Park playing only for the substantial cash awards that accompany points in the Champions League, and for a measure of self-respect after a season that has collapsed into rubble after an expensive refurbishment in the summer.

Unai Emery, the manager recruited from Valencia, has gone, Emmanuel Emenike, the Nigerian forward, has reportedly refused to come off the bench, they have been defeated 5-1 by Dinamo in a derby, had two players sent off in the loss to Zenit St Petersburg and been assailed by a Tsarist restoration that has reclaimed the Luzhniki Stadium as a royalist hunting ground. One lies about the last, but the way things are going for Spartak, do not rule it out.

All this should ensure that Spartak turn up, lie down and Celtic achieve the result they need to move into the knockout stages of the Champions League. A glance at the riches in the Moscow side points to the danger in this presumption.

Kim Kallstrom, Juan Manuel Insaurralde and Romulo were all recruited in the summer to add to a squad that included Rafael Carioca, Aiden McGeady, Welliton and Emenike. Second place in the Russian league was secured on the last day of last season and Valery Karpin, then general director and now acting manager, spoke boldly in the summer of Spartak's hopes of winning a first championship since 2001.

Last night he had to address the reality that Spartak are eighth in the national league and fourth in the Champions League group. The goals against column in Group G tells the story, with Spartak shipping 12 in five games. The Moscow side also lost four goals in the defeat by Zenit on Friday and Karpin stuck to his mantra of resilience being a team responsibility.

"I would like to underline the problem of defence is just the defence's problem," said the 43-year-old, who seems certain to employ two holding midfielders in front of a back four that has lost the confidence of many commentators in Russia.

Karpin, though, was adamant about his side's motivation going into a match that means nothing in terms of continued European involvement for the players.

"It is up to the players to prove they are up for the challenge. This is a serious game. They have to show who they are," he said.

Kallstrom, who revealed he had spoken to Henrik Larsson and Johan Mjallby in the past about the atmosphere at Celtic Park, acknowledged there had been a "big change" in culture since the departure of Emery, who fell out with several players.

"When you have a new coach there are new internal rules and the way we play changes a bit," said the Sweden internationalist.

But he is aware that Spartak need to address defensive failings before any progress can be made.

"We did not play badly but we lost four goals," he said of the defeat by Zenit. "We have worked hard on our problems. We have acknowledged what the problem is, and we cannot lose so many goals."

Kallstrom, of course, has already enjoyed success in Glasgow when he was part of the Lyon side in the 2007/2008 season who came to Ibrox and knocked Rangers out of the Champions League.

"It was one of my favourite games in the Champions League – it was great to come back in the group stage. I remember the atmosphere in Ibrox. It was fantastic. I imagine it will be even better tonight."

The Swede knows his latest visit to Glasgow contrasts with the match at Ibrox in that Moscow cannot qualify, but he said: "We have a lot of things to prove to each other."

He expects a "strong, physical" Celtic side who press hard and prove a danger at set pieces.

"They need a result," he said, but Spartak also need some indication that their season is not now destined to be mired in disillusionment and discord.

This is the focus for Karpin, who has watched the warmth of summer optimism shrivel in the cold reality of devastating defeats.

"I am not surprised. It doesn't matter what pot you are seeded," said the former Russia internationalist of the emergence of Neil Lennon's side as contenders for qualification.

"Celtic are a strong, top-quality team and sometimes one game or one episode can decide a lot, like the red card in our game against Celtic," he said of the dismissal of Insaurralde when Spartak were leading 2-1.

"Celtic proved to be a top-quality side against Barcelona. I would underline though that one episode can decide a lot."

He may even have been remembering with a forgivable wistfulness that night in Barcelona in September when a lead suggested that bottom place in the group would not be the fate of the Muscovites.

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