Champions League Preview: CSKA Moscow – BSC Young Boys

The VEB-Arena, which will host tonight’s game between CSKA and Young Boys. Source:

Playoff Round, Second Leg: Group Stages in Sight

Viktor Goncharenko’s CSKA side will return to the VEB-Arena tonight for the Second Leg of their Group Stage Playoff’s with BSC Young Boys. Can the Army Men make it five years of Group Stage Champions League football in a row? If they pull it off, it’ll continue their impressive 100% in qualifying via the playoff route and go into the second leg on route to qualification after a 1-0 victory in Bern. A comical and disastrous – for the Swiss side – own goal from Ghanian defender Kasim Nuhu gave CSKA victory in the dying moments of a tightly contested affair, who hold home advantage this time around.

Young Boys have performed poorly on the road in the competition in the past, having won only once and losing the rest since their first away game in the competition in August 2004. This run includes three trips east to Belgrade, Kyiv and Donetsk to face Crvena Zvezda, Dynamo and Shakhtar respectively. Losing all three games, the Swiss club scored just once – against Dynamo – and conceded eight goals in the process. Therefore, CSKA are favourites to proceed and barring any disaster or collapse, the Army Men should be in the Group Stages by the end of the day.

One factor that may throw a spanner in events, however, is CSKA’s ageing and thinning squad. Goncharenko has the smallest talent pool to choose from of all the elite Russian clubs, and has an ageing team, particularly in defence. CSKA’s squad had the second highest proportion of playing time for players aged 31 and over in Weeks 1-5 of this seasons RFPL, behind only city-rivals Lokomotiv. The oldest player to appear thus far in the League is CSKA’s Sergei Ignashevich, who started last weekend against Ural at the age of 38 years, 1 month, and 5 days. As a result, CSKA’s loaded schedule and an ageing team should usually call for rotation, but Goncharenko can hardly afford to do so as his squad is so threadbare. As a result, Young Boys will be looking to capitalise on this.

Tactical Analysis

One old-Russian proverb comes to mind with Goncharenko’s CSKA; Будь что будет (Be that as it may). Although the need for rotation and change will likely be necessary on paper, the same tactical approach and personnel will likely pull through. Since the Belarusian took over from Leonid Slutsky, he has stood by his tried and tested 3-5-2 formation and has seen success through the switch. The Berezutskiy brothers and Ignashevish all played in a back three under former coach Valery Gazzaev from 2004 to 2008 and know the formation well, while Viktor Vasin was Goncharenko’s go-to man last season in defence at both Ufa and CSKA. Georgi Shchennikov has performed well thus far this season, even equalising in the Moscow derby against Spartak. While Mario Fernandes has long been the best right back in the country and is perfectly suited to his role as a wing-back.

CSKA’s greatest strength is their midfield trio of Alan Dzagoev, Aleksandr Golovin and Pontus Wernbloom. They are three of the strongest central defenders in the RFPL, and as a unit are arguably only rivalled by Spartak (Zobin – Fernando – Glushakov) and Zenit’s (Erokhin – Paredes – Kuzyaev) respective trios. Wernbloom sits much deeper than his counterparts, at the formation actually resembles more of a 3-1-4-2, with the midfield due pushed very high in support of the two forwards. Bibras Natkho may deputise and is a dangerous player in his own right, and Golovin may appear on the wing or Dzagoev up top, but it is undoubtedly when this partnership is together in the middle of the park, CSKA are at their best. Up top, I’d like to see Vitinho partner young striker Fyodor Chalov, two of the most exciting young prospects in the league today.

Team News

Goncharenko did rest a few at the weekend against Ural, as Kiril Nababkin came in for Shchennikov and Alexey Berezutskiy started in place of his brother in defence. However, further up the field, Aaron Olonare was granted a rare start alongside Dzagoev, as Natko came into midfield. Both Vitinho and Chalov were rested at the weekend and were limited to substitute roles. This was likely one of the main causes for CSKA’s draw but will keep them fresh for the much more important fixture tonight.

Goncharenko claimed in his pre-match press conference that he will name a number of youth players on the bench, this is due to the aforementioned lack of depth in the squad, however, CSKA’s first team still remains an imposing lineup. He also has a clean bill of health to choose from tonight, after claiming that Dzagoev did not go off with an injury against Ural, and was “merely tactical”.

Key Players

Igor Akinfeev

Since getting the monkey of a clean sheet in the UCL off his back, Akinfeev has been in imperious form for CSKA. He saved five shots against Young Boys in the first leg and is CSKA’s leader and most important player when on form. Hopefully, with his long-term goal now achieved he can knuckle down and concentrate on the match alone. In the past, even while performing well in big tournaments, he always had a mistake in his as his focus was elsewhere. Yet, his presence will be a vital boost both mentally and tactically, as is undoubtedly after his absence that CSKA’s defence feels much more settled with the Vidnoye-born keeper between the sticks. He is the head of the Lev Yashin club for a reason after all and is emphatically the greatest goalkeeper the country has produced since the fall of the Soviet Union.

Aleksandr Golovin

Golovin has been one of Goncharenko’s strongest and most consistent performers this season, and alongside Aleksei Miranchuk, is Russia’s greatest young prospect. Linked with both Arsenal and Dortmund – as a replacement for Ousmane Dembélé – Golovin thrives alongside Dzagoev and Wernbloom in midfield. Although international audiences will remember his name from Russia’s poor showing at Euro 2016, the young midfielder was forced deep into an unnatural, defensive position in an attempt by former manager Leonid Slutsky to shore up the loss of Dzagoev. However, in this role, he is free to instigate or join attacks, work tirelessly in a box-to-box role and spread the ball wide to the wing-backs. He and Dzagoev are the fulcrum of the team in attack.

Mario Fernandes

Fernandes at times is CSKA’s most important player, and infinitely their most underrated. Often forgotten out wide, he perilously roams the flank in every game and is as equal of an attacking threat as he is a defensive stalwart. Much more comfortable and effective in a wing-back role, expect him to link smartly with the Dzagoev, Berezutskiy and Vitinho, as CSKA will overload Young Boys’ left flank and use the newly-naturalised Russian citizen as an important outlet in attack. Now having been at CSKA for five years, expect the “Russian” wing-back and Shchennikov, his counter-part on the left hand side, to have a big impact on proceedings tonight.

Predicted Lineup

3-5-2: Afinfeev – A. Berezuskiy, Vasin, V. Berezuskiy – Shchennikov, Dzagoev, Wernbloom, Golovin, Mario Fernandes – Vitinho, Chalov


Young Boys are awful on the road in the UCL, this coupled with CSKA’s steely defence and home advantage – losing only one game at home since April – I’d expect a victory from the Army Men, possibly even with another clean sheet for Igor Akinfeev’s growing locker. Young Boys will danger CSKA and are quite solid themselves, but I can look no further than a home win on Russian soil for Goncharenko’s men. Furthermore, Young Boys key man and top scorer Guillaume Hoarau will miss out through injury.


Author: James Nickels

Born and raised in South Shields, the direct mid-point between Sunderland and Newcastle in North-East England during an era of sustained success and European football for the Magpies, while the Black Cats floundered in the lower divisions, so naturally I decided to support Sunderland. I’ve developed an interest in Russian football over the last decade or so, but it piqued while studying for my Masters’ Degree in Russian and Soviet History, and I’ve been hooked by Spartak Moscow ever since. Considers Eduard Streltsov the best of his generation, and a fond proponent of his repatriation.

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