Blackburn Rovers last night discovered, for the second year in succession, that "bulldog spirit" is not enough to succeed in Europe. They were comfortably muzzled by a Spartak Moscow side whose tactical and technical sophistication left the English champions outwitted and outplayed.
A solitary goal, from Sergei Yuran after 41 minutes, was enough but there could easily have been more. However, Rovers also created chances and had their finishing been of its usual standard they might have taken a point.
Now they must go to Norway, in a fortnight's time, and return with a result against Rosenborg Trondheim, the group's weakest side. Two teams go through and it is looking as if they will be Spartak and either Rovers or Legia Warsaw, 3-1 winners over Trondheim last night. "Three wins, nine or 10 points, could be enough," Alan Shearer insisted.
Shearer also said Rovers had "nothing to be ashamed of." Indeed they did not. They were cheered off by the disappointing 21,000 crowd and could not be faulted for effort. But the Russians were also clapped off. The burghers of Blackburn recognised their class, the quality of which is rarely seen at Ewood Park.
Rovers had pledged to attack Spartak in areas where they would not like it. Yet, continually, the Russians played the ball coolly out of defence, before opening up Rovers with slick, one-touch passing at speed.
It was from such a break that the goal came, although responsibility is as much Tim Flowers' as Yuran's. The Blackburn goalkeeper has had a difficult time since his poor Umbro Cup and last night he came rushing, unnecessarily, from his goal as Spartak broke out from a Rovers corner.
Both Graeme Le Saux and Henning Berg were closing in on Yuran as he ran on to Valeri Shmarov's pass when Flowers made the forward's decision easy. As he advanced Yuran lobbed him, leaving Flowers to clatter into Le Saux. Fortunately, after Tuesday's horrifying collision in Monaco, it was only their pride that was hurt.
The goal was harsh on Flowers, who had made a splendid save only eight minutes earlier after Viktor Onopko drove through a crowd of players. Onopko's ability to glide between defence and midfield was typical of the Russians, whose touch, control and movement was impressive. They looked a much better side than the current Russian League leaders, Spartak Vladikavkaz, who lost to Liverpool on Tuesday.
They should be. They had 10 Russian internationals playing and this was the club's 115th European tie, to Blackburn's third.
Rovers had started the brighter, Shearer testing Stanislav Cherchesov in the second minute. Mike Newell, who had again been preferred to Chris Sutton, almost nipped in as the goalkeeper clutched the ball at the second attempt.
But, within minutes, it was clear Moscow had not come for a point as Dimitri Khlestov, the left-back, advanced to shoot wide. The Russians soon emerged the smoother side but Rovers created the better chances, Newell volleying wide from Stuart Ripley's cross then Shearer heading at Cherchesov after his golfing partner, Newell, had found him with a neat chip.
Then Moscow scored and the shape of the game changed. Rovers, forced to push forward, left gaps that Yuran and Andrei Pyatnitsky should have exploited. But they also went close, Cherchesov making fine saves from Hendry and Shearer while Ian Pearce volleyed past the post. The best chance fell to Newell but he shot over with the goalkeeper stranded after Shearer had seized on a poor back-pass.
In the end effort was not enough and Rovers joined Arsenal, Aston Villa and Liverpool as Spartak scalps. To add another gloomy note, Shearer and Hendry, Rovers' key players, were booked. Another caution would mean a one-match ban. In the present circumstances Rovers can ill afford to lose either.
Blackburn Rovers (4-4-2): Flowers; Berg, Pearce, Hendry, Le Saux; Ripley (Makel, h-t), Batty, Sherwood, Atkins (Sutton, 73); Newell, Shearer.
Spartak Moscow (1-3-4-2): Cherchesov; Nikiforov; Mamedov, Onopko, Khlestov; Tikhonov, Pyatnitsky, Kulkov, Tsymbalar; Shmarov (Kechinov, 89), Yuran.
Referee: M Piraux (Belgium).Reuse content