Two goals in as many minutes snatched victory for CSKA in the Moscow derby versus Spartak on Saturday, leaving a serious dent in the latter’s hopes to defend their Russian Premier League (RPL) title.
Goals from Georgi Schennikov and then Vitinho in the last 10 minutes of the game at the VEB Arena overturned a 1-0 Spartak lead that came via a deflected strike from Mario Pasalic, his first goal for the club since joining on loan from Chelsea.
The result means champions Spartak have now gathered just 8 points from the opening six games of their title defense, a successful retention of their title looking increasingly less likely, whereas CSKA move up to 5th in the RPL table.
The team lineups told a tale of two goalkeepers. CSKA welcomed Igor Akinfeev back between the sticks after two games out, while at the other end Aleksandr Selikhov retained his spot in the Spartak goal in place of Artem Rebrov, who was dropped after the recent 5-1 drubbing by Zenit St. Petersburg.
It wasn’t long before Selikhov was tested. Three Alan Dzagoev shots in the space of a few first half minutes drew one particularly spectacular save from the Spartak stopper to tip the ball over for a corner.
CSKA pressed early on as it seemed Spartak struggled to settle, but CSKA couldn’t find a way to penetrate and both sides went into the break level at 0-0.
But just three minutes after the restart and against the run of play, Mario Pasalic opened his Spartak account with a low drive that deflected in off a CSKA defender to leave Akinfeev with no chance.
The CSKA fans behind the goal had been preparing a performance routine with ticker tape before Pasalic’s shot went in, and instead tossed the paper strips at the celebrating players beneath them.
It didn’t seem to bother Croatian Pasalic, who courted considerable attention this summer with his move to Spartak from Premier League champions Chelsea. The midfielder was on loan at AC Milan last season, but the close relationship between Chelsea boss Antonio Conte and Spartak head coach Massimo Carrera, his former assistant manager at Juventus and Italy, swung the deal for Pasalic to move to Moscow.
It looked like Spartak would hold on for an unlikely victory as time seemed to ebb away for CSKA to find an equalizer. That was until the final 10 minutes when the Army Men pushed forward.
Aleksandr Golovin drove down the right and passed Pasalic with ease before squaring to Moscow native Georgi Schennikov who fired the ball home from close range. This time the CSKA tape was thrown for the right reasons.
Just as the celebrations were about to settle, CSKA were on the attack again. Vitinho tried his luck from range and when his shot bounced and rippled the back of Selikhov’s goal, the home crowd were sent into raptures.
When, after the restart, Spartak’s Quincy Promes fired a volley goal wards at the other end only for Igor Akinfeev to save and hold, it was clear it wouldn’t be Spartak’s day. But the final few minutes would not be without drama.
When CSKA defender Pontus Wernbloom body checked Promes, the latter’s teammate Georgi Dzhikiya steamed into the Swede at full force, precipitating a fracas involving all 22 players and members of the bench.
As a result of the ensuing scuffle, Wernbloom, Dzhikiya and CSKA’s Mario Fernandes were all booked for their troubles and a free kick to Spartak was awarded.
But seconds after it was taken by Selikhov, the referee blew the final whistle, the game ending a reverse of the scoreline of the same fixture in April, which came in the midst of Spartak then closing in on the title.
There was to be no dream ending for Pasalic upon scoring his first Spartak goal, his new team slip to eighth.
“In the last six minutes, I wouldn’t change my team, they are a strong team, we also tried hard in the game,” Massimo Carrera told press after the match.
“We also created good chances, in the last minutes, we couldn’t control the moments that led to the goals,” he added.
Asked whether the performance of Selikhov influenced the outcome of the match, Carrera said, “Selikhov, I didn’t think he played badly. Like in every team we have two goalkeepers that challenge for the number one jersey.”
Questions will now surely be asked whether manager Carrera has done enough in the transfer market to compete with the likes of Zenit for the league title.
With just the loan move of Pasalic the only high-profile signing for the red and whites in the absence of a mooted move for Fedor Smolov of Krasnodar, Spartak are far outstripped by Zenit, who have spent a total of $79 million recruiting high-profile names such as Leandro Paredes, Sebastien Driussi and Emanuel Mammana, as well as Russian internationals Aleksandr Erokhin and Dmitri Poloz on free transfers.
The question of defending their first title in 16 years must surely be closed for Spartak, the question now is can Carrera, with Champions League football still to come, salvage something from an already difficult second season in charge.