THE odds are stacked against Raul Riancho as Spartak Moscow prepare for their final throw of the dice. It is win or bust for the Russians and their Spanish coach.
Two points from three games – the second of which was secured at Ibrox last month – leave Spartak bottom of Group G ahead of their return meeting with Rangers this evening. Victory, therefore, is the only option for the former Premier League champions.
The impressive Otkritie Arena hasn’t exactly been home sweet home for Spartak this season and Riancho finds himself as a figure of fun amongst supporters. Asked to step in following the sacking of Massimo Carrera before the first meeting with Rangers, Riancho remains at the helm despite the protests of a disgruntled fan base.
A win over Steven Gerrard’s side this evening would lift the mood around the red sections of the Russian capital and keep Spartak’s hopes of a knockout round berth alive. It would do little to raise Riancho’s standing with those who will cheer his side this evening, though.
“After every rain comes the sun, that is what I said at the weekend, yes,” Riancho said at his pre-match press conference on Wednesday afternoon. “I hope that there will be sun.
“I think and I am sure Spartak has a chance to qualify from the group stages and [today] we will do our best against Rangers.
“Yes for sure the game will different because we knew Rangers are very powerful at home with such a fantastic support.
“[Today] we will play at home, we need to win to have any chance of qualifying from the group, so there will be a more offensive approach.
“For sure it won’t be easy to play at home but since I am an employee of Spartak, since I get my wages here at Spartak my focus is to protect my players from this outside influence, which can sometimes be negative.
“I will not sacrifice my players and I will always try and protect them from this negativity.
“And the players will only produce their best when they are secure, calm and happy. Only in these conditions can they produce.”
The departure of Carrera, the Italian sacked after a poor start to the Premier League campaign, is just one of the issues that the Spartak hierarchy are dealing with. His permanent replacement has yet to be announced and the futures of captain Denis Glushakov and defender Andrey Yeshchenko remain unclear after they liked an Instagram post criticising their former boss several weeks ago.
A 2-1 defeat to FC Ural at the weekend leaves them sixth in the standings and 12 points adrift of league leaders Zenit St Petersburg as their season threatens to go from bad to worse. Now Rangers have a chance to pile on the pressure as they bid for a famous away win.
“I don’t understand why our own supporters want to destroy a club which has a proud 96-year history,” Riancho said. “This team needs the support of the fans, but we are not getting it.
“The players feel it. You can see it in their behaviour in the dressing rooms. They were getting abused in the warm-up and the match.
“I get the feeling there is an external evil force at this club that makes us do badly. I’ve never experienced anything like it.
“My players are not bad footballers – it’s just that working in this environment causes them to play badly.”
It looked like Rangers had come up against Spartak at just the right time when the Russians made the trip to Ibrox last month. They couldn’t take advantage, however, as their profligacy in the final third cost them a second Group G win.
Gerrard and his players will encounter a side that still don’t have their problems to seek second time around and there are few clues about how Riancho will line Spartak up for what could be the defining game of their European campaign.
A raft of changes have been made as the 58-year-old has attempted to find the winning formula in recent weeks. He has a plan, but he is keeping it close to his chest.
“I am not going to tell you my team, only the players need to know this information,” he said when asked about his starting line-up. “We made seven changes for the Kazan came after the Rangers game. We made another four changes for our last league match.
“I cannot say I was satisfied with the last match because I know the team can perform better.
“At this stage the most important thing for the coach is to make the team fully prepared for the game.
“We are playing three games in a week at the moment and there is practically no time for us to prepare the team, it becomes almost psychological.
“It is impossible to take the team out, to arrange a dinner for the players, it can help it can help change their mindset.
“But we are playing three games a week at the moment. We are staying in the hotel and then flying to games.”