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Red Letter Day: How Spartak Moscow regained the Championship

It has been a long and painful 16 year championship drought for Spartak Moscow and their fans, but a stellar campaign has seen the People’s Club of Moscow win the Russian league once again.

I, like many football fans who take an interest in football both in their domestic country and overseas football, all experience a moment when we suddenly become intrigued by either a foreign football team or several foreign football leagues. My first memories of football were the 1996 European Championships in England and after this tournament, I was gripped on English football and avidly followed it from then on. Despite frequently watching Champions League games between 1996-2000 involving English teams like Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea, I had not shown an interest in following non-English football. Then all of a sudden, one night on Wednesday 22nd November 2000 just before heading off to bed one midweek evening, I switched on English TV channel ITV to watch the Champions League highlights and the highlights of one particular game, opened up my mind and curiosity to begin to explore foreign football and leagues beyond the UK. You are probably guessing what game that was and what team it involved, if you guess the defending European champions Real Madrid and their Galaticos side, or the feared Bayern Munich side containing the likes of Oliver Khan, Stefan Effenberg and Geovani Elber coached by legendary manager Ottmar Hitzfeld, they are both excellent guesses, however, both are not involved in the game which got me hooked on foreign football, no, that game involved Russian club Spartak Moscow.

The game in question was the first game of the second group stage in the 2000-01 Champions League, Spartak Moscow, the then Russian champions were playing English giants and 1999-2000 Premier League runners-up Arsenal at Luzhniki stadium in Moscow. Arsenal were a strong side whose games and game highlights I was accustomed to watching week-in, week-out in the Premier League. Despite them missing influential French midfielder Patrick Vieira for their trip to Moscow, I fully expected a side including the likes of Martin Keown, Tony Adams, Frederik Ljungberg, Robert Pires and Thierry Henry to dispose of Spartak without many problems, especially after Arsenal’s Brazilian left fullback Sylvinho gave Arsenal an early 2nd minute lead. How wrong was I, an inspired Spartak hit back, fully capturing my attention and admiration with their fluid passing and quick attacking football that I was so used to seeing the Gunners play domestically. On the 29th minute, Spartak equalised via their Brazilian forward Marcao, immediately after half-time on the 51st minute, Marcao scored once again to turn the match on its head. Russian international Yegor Titov and Spartak’s second Brazilian forward Robson then added further goals in a freezing -10 degrees Muscovite evening in front of 75,000 spectators to send the second biggest football club in England at the time behind Manchester United back to North London with their tails between their legs.

Nights like that used to be a common occurrence for Spartak, like Manchester United in the 1990’s in English football, Post-Soviet Russian football in the 1990’s was dominated by Spartak. In the first 10 Russian championships post-Soviet era between 1992 and 2001, Spartak won 9 championships, only Alania Vladikavkaz in the 1995 season denied Spartak a clean sweep. Spartak’s participation in Champions League competitions was an annual occurrence and the result against Arsenal was no fluke either. Alongside defeating Arsenal at home in the 2000-01 second group stage, Spartak also defeated Sporting Lisbon, Bayer Leverkusen and most impressively, the then European Champions Real Madrid at home. Many famous Russian international players who went on to have success playing in higher quality foreign leagues like winger Dimitri Alenichev (so far the only Russian player to win the Champions League with Jose Mourinho’s Porto in 2004), Viktor Onopko and Valeri Karpin starred at some point for Spartak during their golden era. However, until this season, 2001 remained the last time Spartak lifted the league title. It had not just been in the league where Spartak have not experienced any success too, their last Russian Cup win came in 2003 and the famous nights when the club defeated the likes of Arsenal and Real Madrid in the Champions League (results that in my opinion were a greater indicator of the potential Russian clubs could achieve in European competition than their fierce rivals CSKA Moscow and Zenit Saint Petersburg winning the UEFA Cup in 2005 and 2008 respectively) seemed light years away after Spartak suffered an embarrassing defeat to Cypriot club AEL Lanarca in the 2nd Qualification Round of this season’s Europa League.

However, after over a decade in the wilderness where they have been usurped in stature by both CSKA and Zenit, there is evidence that the glory days domestically and better performances in continental competitions once again may just be around the corner. Following their well-deserved 2-1 victory over CSKA and a 1-0 victory against Tom Tomsk on Matchdays 26 and 27 of the Russian Premier League respectively followed by Zenit’s 1-0 home defeat to Terek Grozny, Spartak opened up an 10 point lead at the top of the Russian Premier League over 2nd-placed CSKA and an 11 point lead over 3rd placed Zenit with just 3 matches remaining thus sealing their first Russian league title since 2001 and the first in 16 seasons. The trophy drought finally ended and it could represent the start of a new era of dominance domestically. So, just how have Spartak turned around their fortunes?

Massimo “Il Mago” Carrera – Italian expertise on display in Moscow

The principle catalyst for Spartak’s revival this season is their manager, 52-year old Italian Massimo Carrera. If by any chance you read my early season preview article about Spartak last August, you will be thinking, I thought in your article, it stated that Dimitri Alenichev was Spartak manager? Correct, but immediately after Spartak’s embarrassing elimination against Lanarca in this season’s Europa League, Alenichev immediately resigned as Spartak manager and Carrera, who was Alenichev’s assistant manager was appointed in his place in a temporary caretaker role. Carrera had only arrived in Moscow in the summer, as Spartak were looking for an assistant manager for Alenichev to help with Spartak’s defence, an area of the team which has let them down badly in recent seasons. Due to a previous playing spell in Italy in the late 1990’s with Italian giants AS Roma, Alenichev is able to speak Italian and after a recommendation from Spartak’s Italian goalkeeping coach, Gianluca Riommi to approach Carrera, Alenichev flew to France during UEFA Euro 2016 where Carrera was serving as assistant manager to the then Italian national team’s manager Antonio Conte. Immediately after the Italy v Belgium game at the tournament, a deal was agreed with Carrera to take him to Moscow this summer as Spartak’s assistant manager.

Carrera had a long and distinguished playing career as a central defender which ended in 2008 at the age of 44 with Italian club Pro Vercelli. The most famous period of which was between 1991 and 1996 where he spent 5 seasons at Italian football’s most decorated club Juventus. Under the guidance of legendary coach Marcello Lippi, Carrera won a Serie A and Coppa Italia double in 1994-95 and a Champions League title the following season in 1995-96. He was also capped once by the Italian national football team in a 1992 friendly against San Marino. After retiring, Carrera immediately turned to coaching and between 2009 and 2012 he coached in the youth teams of former club Juventus. Then in 2012, an opportunity to take charge of Juventus on a temporary caretaker basis came about as then Juventus manager Antonio Conte was temporarily banned for a period from coaching Juventus after alledgedly failing to report allegations of match-fixing in Italian football. Carrera’s caretaker spell at Juventus lasted for 10 matches between July 1st 2012 and October 19th 2012, where Carrera remained unbeaten with 7 victories and 3 draws which even included winning the 2012 Italian Super Cup. Immediately after Antonio Conte left Juventus to coach the Italian national team in 2014, Carrera joined his former team-mate Conte as assistant manager of the Azzurri. Upon the resignation of Alenichev, Spartak owner Leonid Fedun had no plans to give Carrera the job on a full time basis and engaged in talks with the manager of last season’s surprise Russian Premier League runners-up FK Rostov, veteran 64-year old Turkmenistani manager Kurban Berdyev. However, talks about Burdyev taking up the vacant Spartak post broke down, reportedly due to Berdyev’s insistence on controlling a wide aspect of roles as manager of Spartak and Fedun’s lack of willingness to allow such control to be granted to an individual. Meanwhile, Carrera, in his role as caretaker Spartak manager recorded 1 win and 1 draw in his first two games, which combined with the failure to attract Berdyev convinced Fedun to give Carrera an opportunity to be a number 1 at a club after many years serving as a number 2 and on 17th August, Carrera was confirmed as Spartak’s new permanent manager, signing a 2 year contract at the club.

Carrera’s promotion must have surprised even himself given he was brought in to be a specialist defence assistant manager, however, the promotion has worked a treat. In the 25 league matches played by Spartak since Carrera was confirmed as the club’s new permanent manager, Spartak have won 19 of them, drawing 2 and losing just 4, an impressive win percentage of 76 per cent. Carrera has also preceded over 2 impressive consecutive winning streaks, four in a row between Matchday 4 and Matchday 7 and six in a row between Matchday 10 and Matchday 15 in the league which has been the main factor in Spartak being able to open up their sizeable dominance over their rivals.

Defensive Discipline, Collective Responsibility and Mental Toughness

So just how have Spartak gone from being perennial underachievers continuously eliminating all pre-season hopes of their fans to winning a first title in 16 years and fulfilling their potential? Prior to the appointment of Carrera, Spartak already possessed one key characteristic of a title-winning side, a strong attack capable of scoring goals. In the 2015-16 Russian Premier League, Spartak under Carrera’s predecessor Alenichev scored a total of 48 goals in 30 Russian Premier League games, an impressive average of 1.6 goals per game. On top of this, Spartak played an attractive brand of football, focused on keeping the passes on the ground, passing into space for team-mates to run onto in attacking positions and quick transitions and combination play in the final third to unlock defences. Spartak’s star player, Dutch winger Quincy Promes was absolutely crucial to their attacking play last season and weighed in with an impressive 13 goals as Spartak finished 5th in the league with 50 points, 15 behind last season’s winners CSKA. This season, so far Spartak have scored 43 goals from their 28 games so far at an average goals per game ratio of 1.54 goals per game. Carrera has therefore not had any influence here as the team was already capable of scoring goals prior to his arrival and having watched Spartak several times under Carrera, the same passing and moving the ball into space tactics have been retained. However, 3 other components not possessed by Spartak last season and in previous seasons have been found emphatically by Carrera this season, resulting in Spartak’s dominant league position.

The first of these is a strong defence, no team, no matter how strong their attack can win championships without their defence forming a well-organised defensive structure that is difficult to break-down. When Carrera was brought into Spartak initially as an assistant this season, his brief was to improve their defence and he has been an impressive success. Last season, in their 30 Russian Premier League games Spartak conceded 39 goals at a rate of 1.3 goals per game, normally, teams that win a championship have defences that only concede on average between 0.8 and 1 goal per game. In contrast after 28 games so far this season, Spartak have conceded just 24 goals, a ratio of 0.86 goals per game, in line with the statistics of a title winning side. Furthermore, in 2015-16 Spartak kept 11 clean sheets in 30 games, after 28 games this season Spartak have kept 14. Another contrast to last season is the number of dropped points by Spartak when they held winning or tying positions in games, after 30 games last season Spartak from game winning/tying positions dropped a total of 14 points, contrast that to just dropping 5 points from game winning/tying positions so far this season.

The second key component that Carrera has found is greater collective responsibility from his squad. Of the 48 goals scored by Spartak last season, 13 of them were scored by Quincy Promes, the club’s star player. There was a big gap between Promes and the club’s second highest scorer, Cape Verdean international striker Ze Luis with 6 goals. It was also not just goals that were important to Spartak that 25 year old Dutch international Promes provided last season however, it was also assists, the ability to frighten defenders with his tricky and pace and generally his all-round ability to initiate attacking moves that resulted in goals. In short, Promes carried Spartak often last season and on the rare occasion where he played below his best or was suspended/injured, Spartak often either dropped points or struggled during matches. This season, Promes has once again been excellent, scoring 11 goals, however, other players have crucially stepped up for Spartak. German central defender Serdar Tasci has been exceptional, Spartak’s defensive midfield partnership of Brazilian international Fernando and Russian international Denis Glushakov have shielded the defence superbly. Up front Ze Luis has chipped in with 5 goals and has nearly matched his goal tally from last season, whereas the other 2 members of Spartak’s attacking midfield 3 of their 4-2-3-1 formation alongside Promes, Russian international Roman Zobnin and Georgian international Jano Ananidze have also impressed throughout the season. Last season, just 6 Spartak players hit more than 1 league goal for the club, this season so far, 11 Spartak players have contributed more than 1 league goal. So far this season, Promes is Spartak’s leading scorer once again but rather than a 9 goal difference existing between the top scorer of a team and its second top scorer like last season, this season it is only a 5 goal gap between Promes and Glushakov who has 6 goals. Of course, an individual can still propel a side to a trophy practically all by himself in sports teams like Diego Maradona for Argentina in the 1986 FIFA World Cup. However, in modern football, successful teams are often ones where significant contributions throughout a season from a wide variety of players often wins a team the championship and Spartak’s championship winning team certainly fit that mould.

The third and final key component installed by Carrera to Spartak this season is incredible mental toughness. This is arguably the most important characteristic in any title winning side, the ability to play poorly yet still win and collect three valuable points or when the pressure gets cranked up during a game that your team were previously dominating, yet drawing from all their resources, one of your team’s players scores a 90th minute injury time winner which completely emphasises your team’s “never-say-die attitude and spirit”. I have watched many Spartak games over the last 2 seasons and an English club that they reminded me of were Tottenham Hotspur before their talented Argentine manager Mauricio Pochettino arrived at the club in the summer of 2014. Pre-Pochettino, Tottenham had a reputation for being a team with a number of good quality players in their ranks but were never consistent when achieving results, incapable of putting together long unbeaten runs and had a weak mentality which lead to them crumbling under pressure and thus being incapable of challenging consistently for trophies. One article even coined the term “Spursy” to describe all of Tottenham’s pre-Pochettino deficiencies above.

Spartak, pre-Carrera also had these problems, since owner Leonid Fedun bought the club in 2004, he has hired and subsequently dismissed several managers, with a wide variety of managerial choices and strategies used over the seasons. Sometimes former Spartak playing heroes were appointed (Alenichev and Karpin), sometimes experienced foreign managers were tried (Nevio Scala), sometimes young and talented managers who at the time of their appointment were tipped as amongst the brightest prospects in management (Unai Emery and Michael Laudrup) yet all seemed incapable of ending the trophy drought that has plagued Spartak. Furthermore, seasons came and went yet similar problems always seemed to emerge at Spartak which stopped them from winning a championship. Conceding too many goals, failure to hang onto leads, dropping points at home against considerably weaker opponents and many players who had a weak mentality and inability to handle pressure situations during crucial big games in a season. Now, Carrera has succeeded in curing all of the above ills and Spartak are a side who have confidence flowing through them and never know when they are beaten.

Excellent Summer and Winter transfer windows have also played a vital factor in Spartak’s success

Whilst a lot of the praise for Spartak’s success has been heaped on Carrera and correctly so, it is also worth noting that the club’s main transfers in both the summer and winter transfer windows have also had a substantial say in Spartak’s title success. The best summer signing that the club made was that of 25 year-old Brazilian central midfielder Fernando who was signed from Italian club UC Sampdoria for a fee of around 12 million Euros this summer. Fernando has excelled for the club in a central defensive midfield role, shielding Spartak’s defence all season with excellent positioning and tackling on top of his ability to intercept passes that can threaten Spartak’s defence. His excellent discipline in this role has allowed his fellow deep-lying defensive midfield colleague Denis Glushakov to get forward more this season and chip in with an impressive 6 goals.

Another big summer signing who has developed nicely at Spartak since the club signed him is 23 year-old Russian international midfielder Roman Zobnin who was signed from relegated Dynamo Moscow last summer for a fee of around EUR 3 million. As I alluded to in my article about Dynamo’s struggles last season, Zobnin alongside several other young players from Dynamo’s academy and reserve sides turned out performances far greater than their years embarassing some of Dynamo’s more experienced players. Zobnin is capable of playing as both a central midfielder and on the flanks of an attacking midfield 3 in a 4-2-3-1 formation. He has been a regular for Spartak since signing, playing in 26 league matches so far this season and his performances have won him call ups to the most recent Russian national squads. The signing of Zobnin and how he has proved a success for the club since signing demonstrates that Spartak are capable of identifying and signing on the cheap talented players who shine in underperforming teams.

Another factor which cannot be understated was even with a sizeable 7 point lead over 2nd placed Zenit Saint Petersburg after 17 out of 30 matchdays in the league going into the long 3 month winter break in the Russian Premier League, Spartak did not rest on their laurels believing what they had was enough to see them over the line. Fedun backed Carrera in the winter transfer window with some clever purchases. The most notable was the signing of 29 year-old former Shakhtar Donetsk and AC Milan striker Luiz Adriano from AC Milan on a fee believed to be lower than GBP 1 million. Not only with this transfer have Spartak strengthened their squad for the remainder of the season, they also now possess a quality striker with a proven record in the Champions League for next season’s competition which Spartak will participate in. The Brazilian’s involvement since signing for Spartak has been limited due to injuries, but already he has made an impact by scoring goals in the 2-2 draw away at Krasnodar on Matchday 18 and then an even more crucial goal, Spartak’s opener against CSKA in their recent 2-1 away victory against their fierce rivals. Two other crucial winter window signings were 32 year-old Alexsandr Samedov, signed from Lokomotiv Moscow and 23 year old central defender Georgi Dzhikiya from Amkar Perm. The former is a tricky winger who does not start often for Spartak, however, is a fine option with his dribbling and ability to beat a man to bring off the bench with 20/30 minutes remaining to run at tired defenders. The latter is one of Russia’s most promising young central defenders who has impressed in several games so far and adds further depth to Spartak’s defence.

5 Crucial Games in Spartak’s title success

1 – Spartak Moscow 3-1 CSKA Moscow – Matchday 12, 29/10/2016

The first indication of a future Spartak title triumph, in the previous 11 games of the season, Spartak had won 25 points from 8 wins, 1 draw and 2 defeats and at this point were sitting at the top of the table. Yet, prior to this match against rivals CSKA, Spartak had yet to beat one of their main title rivals CSKA or Zenit, the latter of whom they had played away in Saint Petersburg on Matchday 9 and had lost by 4 goals to 2. This victory against CSKA was therefore crucial in laying down a marker for the season and it was achieved impressively via goals from Glushakov and a double from striker Ze Luis who was twice superbly assisted by Glushakov.

2 – Spartak Moscow 1-0 Amkar Perm – Matchday 14, 20/11/2016

This game emphasised perfectly how Spartak this season have cured their previous tendencies to draw games that they have dominated and should have won. All game, Spartak dominated a defensively strong and resilient mid-table Amkar side who always punch above their weight in the league. Attack after attack, shot after shot, save after save from Amkar goalkeeper Alexandr Selikhov, this game had all the hallmarks of being one of those aforementioned Spartak disappointments. All of a sudden however, in the 91st minute of the game, after a sliced clearance from Amkar, the ball fell at the feet of Spartak captain Glushakov who unleashed a rocket of a shot from 20 yards out which cannoned off the crossbar and over the line. It was a Captain Marvel moment reminiscent of Steven Gerrard’s screamer for Liverpool against Olympiakos all those years ago from Glushakov and come May it proved just as important for Spartak as it did for Liverpool.

3 – Spartak Moscow 3-2 FK Orenburg – Matchday 21, 03/04/2017

If the dramatic late victory against Amkar was an example of Spartak curing a past ill of being unable to break down stubborn opponents, another dramatic victory, this time against relegation-threatened Orenburg highlighted how the club found a way this season to reacting well once under pressure in a game. In the 70th minute of this game, Spartak were winning by a score of 2-0 and seemingly cruising to another 3 points after 2 well-executed headed goals from Roman Zobnin. Then suddenly, Orenburg’s Denis Popovic curled in an unstoppable shot into the top corner of Spartak’s net to make the scores 2-1. Just a minute later, Michal Duris then equalised for Orenburg and after seemingly being in control of proceedings, Spartak now had to find a way to counter the pressure they now found themselves under. It took them a while, just like in the Amkar game, however, with virtually the last kick of the match after 5 minutes of injury time, Spartak’s Mr Dependable, Promes, hit a low and accurate shot into the bottom corner of Orenburg’s goal to ignite wild celebrations by Spartak’s players, fans and by Carrera himself in Spartak’s technical area. One of those “Name on the trophy” moments for a team where when it happens, the title is almost destined to be theirs.

4 – Spartak Moscow 2-1 Zenit Saint Petersburg – Matchday 23, 16/04/2017

After suffering a disappointing defeat to Zenit in Saint Petersburg earlier this season, this match was not only crucial in a sense to gain revenge over their title rivals but because it would in essence close the door on any potential chase from Zenit for the title. Coming into this game, Spartak were 7 points ahead of Zenit and knew that a defeat could see the gap reduced to 4 points. This crucial victory was another example of Spartak’s impressive mental toughness of getting a win when the pressure is on. In the 66th minute of the match, a game which Spartak were leading and dominating 1-0, Zenit suddenly equalised from their only meaningful attack up to that point courtesy of their striker Artyom Dzyuba. At 1-1 in previous seasons, there is every chance Spartak would have ended up losing a game they were dominating. However, Spartak regained their composure and Promes, off-balance when trying to dribble past Zenit defenders on the edge of the penalty box in a Spartak attack, cleverly saw fellow Spartak winger Alexsandr Samedov steaming down the right flank in free space. One pass and Samedov was clear and he rifled the ball into the net, giving Spartak back the lead which they comfortably saw out for 3 vital points which all but confirmed Spartak as champions.

5 – CSKA Moscow 1-2 Spartak Moscow – Matchday 26, 30/04/2017

Or so we thought, a spanner always seems to be unexpectedly thrown into the works of a championship-winning side. Immediately after their victory against Zenit which send them 10 points clear of second placed CSKA and 11 clear of Zenit in 3rd place, Matchday 24 saw Spartak brought back down to earth when they suffered a shock 3-0 defeat away at FK Rostov. CSKA subsequently won to narrow the gap to 7 points and both sides won on Matchday 25 to keep the gap at 7 points going into last Sunday’s Muscovite derby. CSKA could still apply pressure to Spartak with a win here and set up a nervy final 4 matches for Spartak. Yet, if CSKA had one last chance to try and retain their crown and pile the pressure onto Spartak last weekend, it evaporated at Arena CSKA as their fierce rivals secured a hard-fought victory. Goals from the returning from injury Luiz Adriano and Glushakov (the latter of which coming from an uncharacteristic defensive error from CSKA’s Viktor Vasin) either side of an Alexsey Berezutski header for CSKA meant that the champagne for Spartak was ready to be sprayed in deserved celebration.

Future Hopes and Conclusion

In Russian football, Spartak are known as Narodnaya Komanda (The People’s Club) as they were created by a public trade union organisation as opposed to their fellow Muscovite rivals who were formed by government agencies (CSKA representing the Army, Dynamo Moscow representing the police). As a result of the origins of their foundation, Spartak possess the highest average attendances in Russian football, for the season 2015-16, Spartak’s average attendance was 25,179 for their home games in the Russian Premier League, to put their dominance into context ,the second highest-ranked team, Zenit only averaged 16,813 spectators. This season the gap has increased even further as a result of the feel good factor of being top of the league with Spartak’s average attendances surpassing 30,000. This combined with Spartak now having their own stadium, the 45,360 capacity Otkritie Arena, which they moved into in September 2014, augers well for the future. Their stadium is just the right size as they can attract sell-out crowds for next season’s Champions League group games and other big games in the Russian Premier League, which combined with the Champions League group stage money should mean that financially, the club will be in a strong position. Furthermore, Spartak’s squad is the right mix of youth and experience, the more experienced players like Tasci (30), Samedov (32), Adriano (29) and Glushakov (30) still have 2/3 more seasons in them yet before they could need replacing. Add to this the younger players like Zobnin (23), Fernando (25), Dzhikiya (23) and Promes (25) who will all likely improve further in the future and you could see this Spartak team embarking on a second “Golden Era” in Russian football by winning multiple titles over the next few years.

On top of that, Spartak look the strongest representative for a number of years that Russian football will provide to the Champions League. With Spartak set to be seeded for the group stage draw of next season’s competition and with a strong squad with depth at their disposal, there is a decent possibility that Spartak could reach the last 16 and possibly even have a slight chance of reaching the Quarter Finals of the competition if they can keep Carrera and this squad together alongside adding 3 or 4 better calibre players in this summer’s transfer window. Tasci’s impressive performances at the back have seen the German defender linked with English club Southampton, as aforementioned, Zobnin is reportedly a target for Roma and Promes, the jewel in Spartak’s crown has over the last 12 months been linked with Arsenal, Liverpool, Atletico Madrid and Bayern Munich. Nonetheless, Spartak find themselves in a win-win situation, if these players go, they will fetch big transfer fees (especially Promes) which can then be used to source good quality replacements, if they stay Spartak maintain their squad strength from last season and will add further quality players to their ranks with the Champions League money.

A Red Letter Day is defined as a day of special significance or opportunity, which Spartak will experience this season on the day when they hoist the Russian Premier League trophy aloft. Whatever the future holds, 2016-17 will be remembered as the year Spartak finally ended 16 years of underperformance, pain and drought for their fans and claimed a richly deserved title win.

Richard Pike

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