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Not famous any more . . . but Spartak will be tough

THOUSANDS of St Johnstone supporters will descend on McDiarmid Park tonight and if there's a point when they find themselves struggling to think of a chant, they could always go for "You're Not Famous Any More".

St Johnstone talisman Stevie May is a doubt for tonight's first leg with a thigh problem. Picture: SNS
St Johnstone talisman Stevie May is a doubt for tonight's first leg with a thigh problem. Picture: SNS

That familiar terrace taunt, directed at any club which has fallen on hard times after a glorious past, applies quite emphatically to Spartak Trnava. The Slovaks take on St Johnstone in the third qualifying round of the Europa League. They used to fly far, far higher than this.

In 1973 and 1974 they were quarter-finalists in the old European Cup. Even those milestones were in the shadow of their run in 1968-69 which took them all the way to a semi-final against Ajax. They won the second leg 2-0 - against a team including Johan Cruyff and Piet Keizer - but still went out having already lost 3-0 in Amsterdam. Time is cruel and 40 years on the club from western Slovakia arrived in Scotland as unknowns yesterday.

There was a time when they were, if not quite royalty, one of the most respected and dangerous teams in Europe. They do not threaten the continent any more. They will never push deep into the Champions League. But they pose a real, localised danger to St Johnstone all the same.

In their four European legs against Hibernians of Malta and Zestafoni of Georgia this season they have scored 12 goals.

Stevie May is a doubt for the match because of a problem with a thigh muscle (it was also a thigh muscle problem, on the other leg, which ruled him out of the first leg of the second round tie against Lucerne). He was "struggling", said assistant manager Callum Davidson. "We hope Stevie will be okay but we don't know yet. He didn't train and the physio will need to monitor him. I don't know whether we can risk him. We only have two strikers and we don't want to put him out for longer. We wouldn't take a chance."

If May does not play, an option is for St Johnstone to go with a 4-5-1 and put Steven MacLean up front. A priority tonight, almost as much as winning this first leg, is avoiding the concession of an away goal. Aberdeen drew 0-0 at home to Groningen a fortnight ago and embraced that as a positive result.

They were confident of their ability to score away from home and they did, twice, in a 2-1 win. There is a belief around St Johnstone that they may be able to do a similar job on the Slovaks. "If Stevie May wasn't to make it then obviously it would be a huge blow," said MacLean. "But we have players who can step in. He's a quality player and our talisman but we proved in Lucerne we can win without him, albeit maybe playing a different way. We've got players who can hurt teams but he'd be a loss. We might tweak the system a bit but, hopefully, we can manage without him."

A year ago, St Johnstone knocked out a better team than the one which beat them in the following round (having eliminated Rosenborg they lost to FC Minsk). There is the possibility of the same scenario unfolding again. Lucerne were a smooth passing team, albeit toothless up front, and after a pair of 1-1 draws St Johnstone put them out on penalties last Thursday.

Spartak Trnava, third in the Slovakian league last season and third again in the current table, after only two fixtures, are likely to be less pleasing on the eye and more direct. "I don't think they'll play as much football," said Davidson. "I don't think we'll play against many teams who will play as much football as Lucerne. We expect Spartak to be a bit more direct and rigid so they will be harder for us to break down.

"Lucerne passed and tried to find little pockets but this team aren't frightened to stick it in the box and have a challenge."

St Johnstone's last three European ties - against Rosenborg, Minsk and Lucerne - have involved away games in the first leg. Excellent first leg results (two wins and a scoring draw) helped swell the crowd for the second legs at McDiarmid Park. The hope is that another big attendance, perhaps more than 8000, will turn out again tonight to watch the team build a foundation for the return leg. St Johnstone have not found it easy to source information on Spartak - it was only seven nights ago the tie was confirmed - but they have got their hands on DVDs of their last three matches.

Davidson has taken training this week because manager Tommy Wright has been with his family in Northern Ireland, where his mother passed away at the weekend. Wright is due back today and is expected to take charge as usual. "We heard that the coach's mother died this week," said Spartak coach Juraj Jarabek.

"We are sorry to hear that. Our club sends our best wishes to him and his family."

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