Champions League Preview: Manchester United – CSKA Moscow

Manchester United v CSKA Moscow – Tuesday, 5 December, 19:45 GMT, Old Trafford.

CSKA Moscow goes into arguably the most important match in their recent history at the Theatre of Dreams, and you can’t really get a bigger stage nor more difficult opposition for Viktor Goncharenko’s men to guarantee they’ll continue to play Champions League football in Spring 2018.

First, here’s the permutations from RFN statistician Alexey Spektrowski:

CSKA advance to the Champions League knockout stage, if:

  • They defeat Manchester United with a +3 margin or more. They automatically qualify regardless of Basel’s result against Benfica: even if Basel win, three teams will have equal points, and CSKA have better tie-breaks than Basel (equal points, at least equal goal difference, but more goals scored). If CSKA win with a +5 margin, they win the group. If they manage to win with a +7 margin and Basel defeat Benfica, Manchester United are eliminated.
  • They defeat Manchester United with a +2 margin or less, and Basel don’t defeat Benfica.
  • They draw with Manchester United, and Basel lose to Benfica.

Otherwise, CSKA advance to the Europa League knockout stage.

READ MORE: Estimating European Chances for Russian Clubs


Tactical Analysis

Manchester United are undefeated in their last five games against CSKA, with the best the Muscovites could muster a 1-1 draw in 2015 and a 3-3 draw at Old Trafford in 2009. In fact, CSKA must make history and defeat United for the first time should they advance to the UCL knockout stages.

If they are to do so, expect a very defensive performance from the Russians’, who will look to counter with pace through Vitinho, Fernandes and one of Timur Zhamaletdinov, Fedor Chalov or Aaron Olonare. Despite missing recently-converted attacker and target man Pontus Wernbloom as well as key impact-sub Bibras Natkho, CSKA still boast a strong midfield, with wonderkid Aleksandr Golovin paired alongside experience veteran and most important player Alan Dzagoev. I’d expect Konstantin Kuchaev to lineup alongside them as this trio will be vital in both harassing United’s players on the ball as well as linking up with the isolated strikers in transition.

In fact, due to Wernbloom’s suspension, Aron Olonare may start in order to provide a physical presence in the final third, something both Zhalametdinov and Chalov both lack. No matter who plays up top, the whole side will be organised to defend deep and protect the vulnerability to pace of 38-year-old Sergei Ignashevich and 35-year-old Vasili Berezutsky. Before last weekend, I’d heavily cast doubts over whether or not CSKA can do this, but with former Ufa Head Coach Vitor Goncharenko on the sidelines a master of the 1-0, scrappy win and Igor Akinfeev’s clean sheet money off his back, fans of the Red-Blues’ can have reason to be a little optimistic despite the daunting task in which they face.

READ MORE: Everything you need to know about: PFC CSKA Moscow

Team News

CSKA Moscow will be without numerous key players for the matchup, two of which are huge misses, especially after their stellar performances for the Army Men in their 6-0 victory over Tosno at the weekend.

Pontus Wernbloom and Bibras Natkho are both missing from the game due to suspension, picking up their second caution of the tournament in the victory over Benfica last time out.  Aleksei Berezutsky, Georgi Milanov and Georgi Shchennikov are all injured with various regular problems, and as such youth will likely be called upon.

Eight of the travelling party are under the age of 21, highlighting the current problems of depth that CSKA are undergoing right now even with just three injuries and two suspensions.

Key Players

Alan Dzagoev – Likely taking place as the deepest of the three central midfielders in the absence of Wernbloom and Naktho, Dzagoev will be expected to link everything from the three central defenders to the attacking outlets; Fernandes, Golovin, Vitinho and whoever plays alongside the hard-working Brazilian. He is currently playing some of his best football for years and is finally injury free. Dzagoev will have a difficult job in marshalling a trio of Juan Mata, Paul Pogba and Henrikh Mkhitaryan while also becoming the base that all CSKA can build-upon. Daunting.

Viktor Vasin – The giant defender was the man Goncharenko turned towards to solved CSKA’s defensive problem; the slow passing of time. Between them, Ignashevich and the Berezutsky twins are 108 (!) and an impetus of young blood was key. Vasin followed Gonch from Ufa after stellar performances in the first-half of the 2016/17 season, and carried on much of his form ever since, except for the large howling error. Both for CSKA and Sbornaya Vasin has lost concentration by taking his eye off the ball, losing his man, drifting out of position, air-kicking and so on. Yet, as his performance for the national side against Argentina proves, he is a colossal stopper when on top form. That day, he essentially man marked the best player in the world completely out of the game. A similar performance is mandatory if CSKA have any chance of winning.

Igor Akinfeev – Igor Akinfeev, at the 44th time of asking, finally attained a European clean sheet with the 2-0 victory over Benfica at the VEB-Arena last time out. Now, many in the west still ridicule him for a perceived lack of ability, but that is simply not the case. He is the most successful and best goalkeeper in the whole of post-Soviet Eastern Europe, and the successor to Lev Yashin’s crown, but he simply just makes too many costly, and high profile, mistakes (just like Vasin). From last year’s Massimo Taibi-like mistake against Spartak to his inability to catch a ball against South Korea at the 2014 World Cup, he is rightfully known for this. But maybe, just maybe, with this monkey finally off his back Akinfeev can focus purely on his game and really take the step to the next level.


Predicted Lineup

3-5-2: Igor Akinfeev (C) – Vasili Berezutsky, Sergei Ignashevich, Viktor Vasin – Mário Fernandes, Aleksandr Golovin, Konstantin Kuchaev, Alan Dzagoev, Kirill Nababkin – Vitinho, Timur Zhemaletdinov.


Match Prediction

CSKA will put up a valiant effort against a depleted Manchester United side overworked, fatigued and possibly with one eye on the Manchester derby just over a week away. The Red Devils have a somewhat depleted squad, missing numerous stars such as Zlatan Ibrahimović, Eric Bailly, Marouane Fellaini, Phil Jones and Captain Michael Carrick. However, their overall quality should see them through and unfortunately force CSKA down into the Europa League – unless they can pull off a shock result like Basel before them. However, with Paul Pogba suspended from the aforementioned Manchester derby last time out, it may just be CSKA’s (bad) luck that he takes out his anger against them tonight.

Manchester United 2 – 1 CSKA Moscow

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.


  1. Igal Pevsner says:

    Minor error: “…and 35-year-old Viktor Vasin” — Vasili Berezutsky is 35, not Vasin.

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