Ruslan Litvinov: “Before the derby, my heart was pounding but the coach and whole team supported me.”
Ruslan Litvinov: “Before the derby, my heart was pounding but the coach and whole team supported me.”

Prior to our match against Ufa, we spoke to our newest debutant Ruslan Litvinov about playing in the Moscow derby, life in the Spartak youth system, and much more!

Q: Tell us about your experience playing in the Moscow derby.

A: When I realised that I would play against CSKA from the start, I tried with all my might to remove excessive excitement. I didn’t even share the news with my parents so they wouldn’t be nervous. I thought that I’d been training for a long time and had been waiting for a start for a while, so I just needed to take my chance. 

Given Roman Zobnin’s injury, I thought that I would come on as a substitute, however Jorrit Hendrix had been training with restrictions all week, which led me to believe that I could get a start. I didn’t think too much about it, and just decided to wait for the team sheet to be published. However when I saw my name, my heart pounded. For me, this is a different level and a big step forward. At such moments, you understand that you haven’t worked in vain. You should also keep your excitement in check because that can be dangerous. 

I had thoughts that some people might be skeptical about the decision to put me in the starting lineup. But to my surprise, almost the entire team came up to me before the match. The guys said “You are a good footballer, you have been in the team for a long time, in training you’re often better than us. Don’t be afraid, play your football and take the game by the scruff of the neck.”

I talked to the coach individually before the derby. Rui Vitoria said “Do not think that we are throwing you into the heat and treating you as a body just to close a gap. We trust you. You don’t even have to consider yourself to be a young footballer, many players abroad are regular starters at the age of 18. Do your best, and be responsible on the pitch.” 

The derby with CSKA is the best and most coveted match for a full fledged debut. Since the days of the academy, the games with CSKA have stood out. I got on the pitch before the starting whistle, it was noisy, and I didn’t even know where I was. I thought it was a dream. In the games from last season, we also felt the support of our fans; the fans always drive us to victory. There were more fans at the stadium this time though, so the feelings were completely different. Now I really want to enter the field of a full stadium!

For the first ten minutes I felt a bit ill, but after two or three good passes and challenges, I felt calm and confident. I tried to actively join attacks, tried to score off Ponce’s pass. We were upset because a goal in that moment could have had a strong impact on the outcome of the match. However, that’s just how football is. One shortcoming leads to something else, and then we conceded. You have to create chances and take them, you can’t blame each other. The whole team lost. 

After the final whistle, Promes and Larsson advised me not to be too harsh on myself, because there are still many victories ahead. They said that I wasn’t lost on the pitch and played well. 

In addition, I talked to my loved ones after the match. Dad always perceives my games with great scrutiny. He sees all the shortcomings and knows where I can play better. I think he worried about it more than me. Dad thinks that it is impossible to make excuses; it doesn’t matter that it’s your first start, my age doesn’t matter either. This is a different level of football, even simple mistakes cannot be made here. They aren’t forgiven. 

After the game, I tried to let go of negative emotions in order to properly prepare for the next match. We need to improve our position in the standings and show better football as soon as possible. 

Q: We play Ufa next. Their striker, Gamid Agalarov has been in great form this season. How do you plan to stop him?

A: We are on good terms with Gamid, he is a funny guy. He’s a striker who knows how to take his chances. Our defenders may cope with him well and try to remove him from the game. If I come up against him, I’ll try to apply the experience I gained against playing with him for the Russian youth team. 

Ufa are a serious team, there are strong players there. Gamid is one such example. A tough match awaits us, and we remember that Ufa ruined Spartak’s birthday on the day of our last meeting. I think this won’t happen again. 

Q: Why do you think we have struggled at the start of this season?

A: I think this isn’t because of individual errors, or a lack of effort. We all try to do our best in training and give our all in game. We come to the dressing room and literally collapse because we give our everything in the game. The ball just doesn’t go into the goal. When I played in the academy, we also had hard times. Spartak-2 last season almost got relegated. Everyone has tough periods in their personal and professional lives. I am sure that the victories will rack up soon!

Q: How has the standard of physical training with Vladimir Cepzanovic changed this season?

A: Everything is the same as it was before. Vlad is a great professional, he correctly distributes the load. He continues to ‘kill’ us in training, at the training camp he didn’t let us relax either. I had a minor injury before the start of the season, and he did everything to make sure I recovered quickly.

Q: How do you like the level of Spartak-2 as compared to adult football?

A: The match with Spain (note- in the U21 Euro qualifiers) showed us that our level is still not up to the players in La Liga. Many in the Spanish youth team are already in their 20s and play for their clubs very regularly. We still fought, and tried to rally a result. Moreover, the fact that the captain of the youth team is a Spartak player is quite nice. 

In the national team, they play me at centre back, it doesn’t really matter to me what position the manager plays me in. The next target is the national team, this has been a childhood dream of mine.

Q: Last season you came out as a substitute many times, but only in Tula and Grozny did you get tangible playing time. In both games, Spartak achieved the desired result. How did you feel about those games?

A: In terms of emotionality and importance, the matches with Arsenal and Akhmat are right next to the derby. In Tula, I entered the pitch when it was 1-1. It’s very difficult to play there, Arsenal constantly take away points from larger teams. I was given 20 minutes and understood that the cost of a mistake was too high. Fortunately, Spartak showed character and won. In Grozny, the skill of Quincy and Victor managed to secure the Champions League for us. 

Q: You talked about how tough it was moving from the youth team to the second team. Was the step up from the second team to the senior team similar?

A: Moving from one league to another is always difficult. The first team plays at a higher speed, and is very diverse. I understood that it is important to make a decision quickly, this applies to my performance in the derby. 

Q: You’ve played in different positions, which one do you like the most?

A: It’s more interesting for me to play in the centre of the field, where you get the ball more often. The defensive midfielder comes with less of a risk. You realise that there are three defenders at the back that can save you. In central defence, a mistake can lead to a goal because only the goalkeeper is behind you. 

As a child I played as a striker, but I haven’t told the Spartak coaching staff about this. We have a great line of attack! Only my first coach from the Spartak academy knows about this. In the youth team, he put me up front when the other forwards were injured, and many were very surprised!

No matter what position you play in, there are certain characteristics that you need to embody. In attack you need to have composure, in midfield you need endurance, vision and the ability to play with your first touch. In defence, there are calm and simple decisions, but you still need to be sharp. 

Q: Before getting into the main team, you singled out Zobnin as a player that stood out in your position. How have you learnt from him while part of the main team?

A: At the World Cup, Zobnin played for the national team against teams with some of the biggest stars in the world. He is an excellent example for all young players who strive to reach the top. When I joined the first team, I immediately realised that he was one of the leaders. Now I can also highlight our attackers - Promes, Larsson and Moses. They have the ability to get past three or four players at once. Of course, our captain is also a great example. 

Q: How do you feel about the fact that you are often sent back to Spartak-2 after some other players are fit to play again?

A: For any footballer, the most important thing is match practice. When you sit on the bench for a long time, you immediately begin to feel different. The confidence is lost. Last season I asked Tedesco to demote me to Spartak-2 and asked about the possibility of an appearance off the bench. With Rui Vitoria, it’s the same. Both trainers are very open, always sympathetic to questions. When returning to the second team, I never have any stupid thoughts. I never walk with arrogance because I trained with the first team. 

Q: This season Spartak-2 has changed, what has happened?

A: The backbone of the team has changed. Last season, many guys left and new players came in. The new guys needed time to adapt, but everybody has adapted to it now. We’ve begun to play more ‘insolent’ football. I think that younger players shouldn’t be afraid to press and attack older players. This season Spartak-2 should be able to finish near the top of the table. I try to never miss the games of the second team as a spectator, even if it involves driving in the freezing cold. All my friends are there!

Q: You still live at our training base. Why?

A: It’s not easy with apartments in Moscow, so I am not in a hurry to leave. Foreigners of course are very surprised at how I rush to training. I used to leave at six in the morning to avoid getting stuck in traffic jams. I got to the stadium, slept for a bit and then began training. It wasn’t the best, so I spend longer on the road now but I get more sleep. I always look at how to get to the stadium faster, whether that is by taxi or by the metro. On weekends it’s a lot more convenient, you can get there in 45 minutes. 

I have been living at the base for three years. The guys from Spartak-2 and I play table tennis, or billiards, or go to the cinema. I don’t like the bustle of Moscow, but in Tarasovka I appreciate the peace and quiet. There is a lot of greenery, fresh air, you can walk around. 

Q: You graduated from high school with a gold medal. How has football impacted your education? 

A: My mom has two degrees and she is now a public servant. When I saw her gold medal as a child, my goal in life was to get one as well. I graduated from the first five classes with excellent marks and saw no reason to stop. Moreover, the study was easy. Then there were difficult moments, but everything ended well. 

Football has nothing to do with it. After training, there is always time to study. I was preparing for the Unified State Exam, studying via Skype with the teachers. I just understood that education will definitely come in handy for me. Now I’m studying to be a coach at the Russian State University of Physical Culture. I plan to get a second degree, I love mathematics so I might enroll in economics. 

Q: How good is your English?

A: Fine, communication with foreigners allows you to maintain the level. They ask me for some new words, and I do the same with them. 

Q: What is the most interesting thing that our foreigners have asked you to translate? 

A: I remember the moment when Tedesco asked me to translate a stern version of “What are you doing?” into Russian. I said something like “What are you, a creature!?”, and then he started saying that every training session. 

Q: Pavel Maslov often asks Moses about the Premier League. What do you learn from our international lads?

A: I learned about the training systems at Ajax from Quincy Promes. It amazes me that 18 year olds go out there and play as well as the leaders of the team. It’s the same with Hendrix and PSV. Football in Holland is technical and fast, I like it. I asked Moses about his years at Chelsea. 

Q: You’ve been rooting for Manchester United since Ronaldo came for the first time right?

A: Yes, when they lose, I sometimes cry. Of course, I was very happy when I learned that Cristiano returned. Judging by the way he started the season, I think he is quite capable of bringing the team back to the first place in the Premier League. It is amazing how a person maintains such a level at 36 in the best league in the world!

Q: Spartak will play in England this fall, against Leicester. Very soon, we will have a match against Napoli. Excited for these?

A: It is very interesting to visit such stadiums and test yourself at such a high level. The matches with Benfica showed that we need to strive and quickly work to get better. We lost, but this was a learning experience. 

Q: How do you feel about signing a new contract with Spartak?

A: I didn’t get into the details of the process, I have an agent for that. But one thing was important for me and that was maintaining cordial relations with the club. I love it and I am ready to give my all on the field for it.

Date: 24 September 2021, 11:50
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