The Russian newspaper Sovetsky Sport on Monday ran a column that spoke of Chelsea, the St Petersburg ice-hockey team SKA and Spartak Moscow as "three broken toys". All of them, it pointed out, are owned by oligarchs, all have had recent success and all have been undermined by meddling from the top that, to those on the outside, seemed baffling. It compared Roman Abramovich to a boy who loved something so much he hugged it until it suffocated.
Spartak are not European champions, but they did finish last season far higher than most had anticipated. This, after all, is a young, inconsistent team, capable of battering sides one week and being battered the next. Under pressure, they're the last side you'd trust, but wins in their final two games last season saw them overhaul CSKA to take second in the table, 13 points behind Zenit.
Valery Karpin, the club's sporting director, was a reluctant coach – so reluctant he kept threatening to sack himself – but he seemed popular with the players and it was possible to believe his squad was developing. But then he stepped aside in the summer for the former Valencia coach Unai Emery. The Spaniard started well, with three straight wins, but disillusionment soon set in as he failed to find a solution to the club's chronic inconsistency.
The third game of the season saw them win 4-0 at Dinamo. A week later they were thrashed 5-0 by Zenit. A month ago they won 5-0 at Krylia Sovetov but that was the last upswing of Spartak's erratic form. They lost 2-0 to Benfica in the Champions League. They drew 1-1 against struggling Volga Nizhny Novgorod. They were beaten 3-0 by a Barcelona team who would surely have scored more if they'd spent the second half trying to do anything other than keep warm. And then, crushingly, they lost 5-1 at home to Dinamo in a performance of mindblowing abjection. At 3-0 down, the centre-forward Emmanuel Emenike seemingly refused to come off the bench.
Fans stopped the team bus leaving the stadium, demanding answers. Spartak's players were sure who was to blame: Emery. The previous Friday, it was rumoured, there had been a meeting of 20 players to discuss what could be done about the coach. The forward Artem Dzyuba followed up by describing Emery as "petty" and insisting he hadn't been able to understand tactical instructions. There was only one outcome, and by Monday Emery was gone. He later blamed a lack of communication, which seemed a diplomatic way of saying the players had decided pretty quickly they didn't want him The former Spartak player Andrei Tikhonov, always a trenchant pundit, soon gave his opinion. "Under Emery," he said, "the players gave everything only after the match. And that applies to my esteemed Dzyuba. And I never saw Emenike looking this way in the last championship. In addition injuries in recent games have had a psychological impact on the players."
So Karpin is back in charge, adamant – again – that he doesn't want the job full-time. His first game came last Friday, at home to Zenit, and ended in a 4-2 defeat. By the end Karpin was left standing by his dug-out, wearing an expression of disbelief. It wasn't just that his side had lost; it was the self-destructive and ill-disciplined way in which they'd done so. The two Argentinians, Nicolás Pareja and Juan Insaurralde, were both sent off, Pareja for two yellow cards in quick succession, Insaurralde for an inexcusable lunge from behind on Vladimir Bystrov. A stricter referee might have sent off Emenike as well, after 90 minutes of spectacular petulance.
The first and third goals resulted from goalkeeping errors from the hitherto reliable Andriy Dikan. The second came as nobody closed down Axel Witsel. Kirill Kombarov lazily played Witsel onside for the third and fourth stemmed from José Manuel Jurado losing possession cheaply in the centre-circle. "I don't want to talk about the defence – it's just a nightmare," said Tikhonov. "No goalkeeper could keep his nerve behind it."
Spartak are down to eighth in the Russian table. If there's no improvement soon, there's a serious possibility they could finish lower than their worst ever finish of 10th, suffered in 2002. "I've never seen such a weak Spartak," said the former Dinamo defender Aleksandr Novikov. "The team shakes and you can't get away with having no coach to clear away the rubble. I can't question their commitment against Zenit; they put in effort, they all tried hard, but that's not enough. Why have they taken on players who don't correspond to the level of the club?"
He was particularly critical of Pareja and Insaurralde (yet Spartak yesterday were linked with another Argentinian defender, Lisandro López of Arsenal de Sarandí, who is much better than either and, frankly, should consider how his compatriots have faltered at the club before taking the money) and pointed out that the Kombarov brothers, who link on the right, are much better going forward than defending.
It is hard to imagine more demoralised opposition for Celtic, who must get a better result at home to Spartak tomorrow than Benfica achieve away to Barcelona to reach the last 16 of the Champions League. The only slight concern is that the return of Karpin does offer some motivation where previously none existed, with Spartak sure to finish bottom of the group.
"The fact they're not pushing to qualify for the next round could be an advantage," said the former Spartak midfielder Valery Kechinov. "The team can relax and show good football for the sake of their fans.
"And there will be changes on the pitch, with some players who have played too much being rested. In addition the return of Karpin will have a positive effect on the attitude of the players. Personally I'm glad he's back again and I'm sure he'll line the players up correctly. A win will be difficult so my prediction is a 1-1 draw."
That's about as positive as the mood in Moscow gets – and if Barça were to beat Benfica, that would be enough. Realistically, Celtic could not have picked an opponent more likely to wilt before the noise of Parkhead.