Andrew Flint –
Braga vs Spartak Moscow – Thursday, August 22, 19:45 BST/20:45 CEST – Estadio Municipal de Braga, Portugal
Ricardo Sa Pinto is not a man to shrink into the background. His trademark flowing locks have been with him since his playing days when he scored 10 goals for his country, although for a striker he had a remarkably shallow scoring record. He was better known for his fiery temper that saw him punch Portugal manager Artur Jorge for dropping him, attack striker Liedson while working as sporting director at Sporting. Even this month he was thrown off an internal flight in Portugal for arguing with the cabin crew; perhaps it was appropriate that his playing days ended prematurely with a suspension.
As a manager he has been equally temperamental. In less than a decade, he has held 11 different positions in six different countries, never staying longer than a season in any of them. At Braga he has inherited a squad with some considerable potential and it’s fair share of fractious characters. In the immediate short-term he will have been heartened ahead of the playoff first leg against Spartak Moscow, despite seeing his new side beaten 2-1 away to his alma mater Sporting, as they managed to put in 20 shots during the game.
“The result is not fair [against Sporting],” he said after the game. “We didn’t know how to be as aggressive as we wanted. By sheer misfortune, we couldn’t draw, but I’m very proud of the team. It is exceptional to come to Alvalade to do this in the fourth game in 10 days.” Managing a packed schedule is part and parcel of Braga’s existence given their consistent qualification for Europe; they’ve made the groups stages in nine of their last 13 seasons. If Sa Pinto doesn’t get his way, there could be even more fireworks.
Spartak are on a roll after their cathartic derby win last weekend. Amidst the smoke pouring down from flares in the stands, the pressure of already having dropped points on their rivals and the hectic schedule, seemingly from pure willpower alone they swamped CSKA into submission. A fortnight ago it was said that manager Oleg Kononov was one game from facing the sack. After 10 goals and four wins from four the picture is suddenly much brighter, even if the respected figure of Russian national team boss and rumoured replacement Stanislav Cherchesov is an almost permanent spectre lurking in the VIP seats at games.
Of course the ultimate goal is to return to the Champions League, but even a giant like Spartak needs to take baby steps first. One appearance in the group stages of Europe’s elite level is not nearly enough to satisfy the FFP-compliant spending needed to keep them at the front of the queue domestically. Nevertheless the lavish influx of new signings already looks to be a wise investment of significant funds. Jordan Larsson may not have scored or assisted yet, but showed the maturity to lead the line in intense circumstances.
The Swede and Guus Til are both unavailable to play for Spartak in UEFA competition until the group stages as they have featured for their previous clubs, but both have travelled with the squad anyway. It would be heard not to be drawn towards the new-found magnetism in the squad. Til in particular will be a miss, and will most likely mean game time for fringe players such a Reziuan Mirzov, who has struggled to find his niche in this dynamic side. Not long ago, Spartak would have been considered content just to have got through to this round. Now, anything but more dominance will be considered a distinct failure.
Braga vs Spartak Moscow – Players to Watch
Wilson Eduardo #7 – Braga
It has not been the smoothest path to this point for the 29-year-old Angola international. After switching from Porto’s youth setup to Sporting, he was shunted around on seven different loan spells in six years with the senior squad; by the time he left to join Braga four years ago, he had only spent one season at the José Alvalade. Although a regular in his new home, before last season he hadn’t managed to score more than eight goals in a season, but then his role changed. “My job is to score goals against any team,” he told A Bola this week. “We lacked efficiency [against Sporting last weekend]. I hope on Thursday we will be able to score the goals we couldn’t today.”
Samuel Gigot #2 – Spartak Moscow
The man of the moment will need to be a pillar if Spartak are to keep their Europa League hopes alive. His transformative journey has been quite something; last season he was pictured in the penalty area lazily watching as opponents waltzed through and scored, but this season he is almost as motivated as captain Georgi Dzhikiya. Gigot’s two goals in the derby last weekend against CSKA exemplified his desire and quality in the box, especially the delightfully placed header for the first. Spartak have found another leader on the pitch in the Frenchman; his momentum and leadership will be essential.
Braga vs Spartak Moscow – Match Stats
- Braga haven’t kept a single clean sheet so far this season in four competitive matches
- In their entire history, they have embarked on 22 European campaigns; of those, 14 have come in the last 15 years
- They have met Russian opposition once before, beating Lokomotiv Moscow 1-0 at home but losing 3-0 away 20 years ago in the last-ever Cup Winners’ Cup
- Spartak Moscow are currently on their longest winning run in all competitions for almost 18 months
- In their last 10 away matches in all competitions, they have only kept one clean sheet
- They have lost just twice in their last eight away fixtures in this competition
Futbolgrad Network Prediction: Braga vs Spartak Moscow – 1-2
Braga vs Spartak Moscow – Possible Lineups
Matheus – Esgalo, Viana, Santos, Sequeira – Claudemir – Eduardo, Fransergio, André Horta, Ricardo Horta – Ahmed Hassan
Head coach: Ricardo Sá Pinto
Maksimenko – Eshchenko, Gigot, Dzhikiya, Ayrton – Guliev, Zobnin – Bakaev, Schürrle, Mirzov – Ponce
Head coach: Oleg Kononov
Andrew Flint is an English freelance football writer living in Tyumen, Western Siberia, with his wife and two daughters. He has featured on These Football Times, Russian Football News, Four Four Two and Sovetski Sport, mostly focusing on full-length articles about derbies, youth development and the game in Russia. Due to his love for FC Tyumen, he is particularly interested in lower league Russian football and is looking to establish himself in time for the 2018 World Cup. Follow Andrew on Twitter @AndrewMijFlint.