When Antonio Conte took over at Chelsea, his longtime assistant seemed to have been cast aside.
After following Conte through his time with Juventus and Italy – including a spell in charge of Juventus when Conte was banned for failing to report match-fixing – Massimo Carrera was stranded, and took a relatively obscure post as assistant coach with Spartak Moscow.
Four months later, however, Carrera is on the rise. Since being promoted to head coach in mid-August he has turned Spartak, a sleeping giant without a title since 2001, into the Russian league leaders and underlined that success Saturday by dominating rival CSKA Moscow 3-1 in a chaotic derby.
Spartak, a team which failed even to progress through Europa League qualifying under Carrera’s predecessor, was incisive on the counter attack against reigning Russian champion CSKA and ruthlessly exploited the opposition’s injury-depleted midfield. Cape Verde forward Ze Luis scored two goals and constantly battled for the ball.
“It’s about the growth of the team, who are getting better every day and giving their heart and soul on the pitch,” Carrera said after the game, adding that he has tried to bring an intelligent Italian style to Russia, where “football is less tactical and teams are less organized.”
The derby took place against a backdrop of fire and smoke as rival fans burned captured banners and scarves, boasted of past hooligan “victories” on Moscow’s streets, waved flares and threw pyrotechnics into sectors packed with opposing supporters.
Though there were no violent clashes inside the stadium and no injuries were reported from the flare-throwing, the chaos and thick smoke forced the referee to stop the game for five minutes. The sheer quantity of pyrotechnics used is likely to prompt questions over how so many banned items were allowed through security screening at a 2018 World Cup venue.
Carrera said the intense atmosphere reminded him of the Milan or Turin derbies, but complained CSKA fans had “spoiled the atmosphere” with aggressive antics.
Russia has given Carrera a fresh start in football as well as personal matters, with little mention in Moscow of his involvement in a fatal car crash in the early hours of New Year’s Day in 2011. His easy-going manner has won him friends among Russian fans and journalists, unlike fellow Italian Fabio Capello, whose brusque manner alienated many during his tenure of the national team.
As Carrera’s fortunes rise, those of CSKA’s Leonid Slutsky plummet. In May, he had just won his third Russian title in seven years with CSKA and was on the way to the European Championship as Russia coach. Since then, it’s been all downhill.
Slutsky quit the national team after failing to get out of the group stage, and now he is under pressure at CSKA. Injuries, an aging defense and a lack of funds to replace departed forward Ahmed Musa have all limited Slutsky’s options. With CSKA seven points off the Russian league lead and last in its Champions League group, Slutsky is being criticized for tactics which once seemed pragmatic but are now derided as overly defensive.
With anti-Slutsky banners appearing at games, a leading CSKA fan group issued a statement slamming his tactics and his “personal conduct,” a charge which some observers link to Slutsky’s recent appearance in a PR campaign for a Jewish cultural center.
Unless CSKA turns its season around soon, it looks like a straight fight for the title between Spartak and Zenit St. Petersburg, which matched Spartak on points following Sunday’s 1-0 win over Tom Tomsk.
FC Rostov, the team labeled a “Russian Leicester” for its charge to second last season, is mired in mid-table, as is Rubin Kazan, with nothing to show for big offseason spending.
The circumstances look good for Spartak to end its long title drought, and for a remarkable turnaround in the fortunes of its coach.