The competition is stiff but tomorrow’s game between MŠK Žilina and Spartak Moscow is surely a prime candidate for ‘most meaningless fixture of the Champions League group stage’. Spartak already know that they will be entering the UEFA Cup in February, while Žilina know that their whole European adventure is over. The match does not even have any relevance to the clubs‘ respective domestic campaigns. The Russian league season is over, the Slovak version has gone into its three-month hibernation period. It could be argued that February run-outs against the likes of Lučenec will be of more ultimate significance to Žilina than the meeting with Spartak.
Still, UEFA, presumably aware that plenty of pointless football is played in their supposedly elite competition but wanting to offer at least some incentives to encourage teams to take the games seriously, hand out cash bonuses for group stage wins and draws. Whether the prospect of a million extra Euro in the club’s coffers will see MŠK fans celebrating in Marianské Square till long into tomorrow night should their side defeat the Russians remains to be seen. But the evidence thus far suggests that interest in the game is limited. Žilina’s marketing manager confirmed today that fewer than 7,000 tickets have been sold and it’s difficult to imagine an awful lot more being shifted before kick-off.
If only for the sake of the money, but perhaps for a bit of ‚closure‘ too, I would expect Pavel Hapal to play his strongest available side tomorrow night. All his players are fit except Štefan Zošák, who probably wouldn’t have started the game but would have been a handy substitute with his ability to fill any midfield position. Lubomir Guldan’s accomplished recent performances in the midfield holding role should see him retain his place behind the more attacking duo of Robert Jež and Issiaka Bello in a 4-1-4-1 formation. Hapal says that the mood in his squad has been positively influenced by the fact that yesterday was St Nicholas’s day. Cynics would no doubt respond that seasonal generosity will need to stop if Žilina really do want to finally earn a positive group stage result.
While there was never any real expectation that Žilina would advance to the knockout rounds, Spartak will surely be disappointed with the decline in their fortunes over the course of the group stage. A surprise win in Marseille and an easy one at home to Žilina put them on maximum points after two games but home and away losses to Chelsea saw their momentum stall and they were then decisively beaten in the shoot-out for second place at home to the French side. With Ari injured and Welliton suspended, they will not be at their strongest tomorrow. They seem to be approaching the game with the utmost seriousness however, and were at a training-camp in Hungary for several days before travelling up to Žilina
As well as praising the spirit within his squad, Hapal is positive about the state of the Štadión pod Dubňom’s playing surface, saying it’s not only playable but should even be conducive to good football. That really is a tribute to the Žilina ground staff who have had to cope with days of freezing temperatures, a sudden thaw over the last 36 hours or so and the fact that both squads, in accordance with UEFA regulations, have to be granted access to the pitch for training purposes. Partly in the interests of journalistic research and partly because I was at the club shop near the ground in pursuit of Christmas presents, I had a quick look at the pitch through an open corner of the ground today and I can support Hapal’s sentiments ; it looked absolutely fine. Given this, and despite the undeniable meaninglessness of the occasion, 90 minutes of reasonable entertainment shouldn’t be too much to ask.
By James Baxter – BritskiBelasi