Everything you need to know about: PFC CSKA Moscow

The Grigory Fedotov VEB-Arena in Khodynka Field, Moscow. Source: Moscovery.

PFC CSKA Moscow is rooted in the Russian military. Formed as the Soviet Army’s official football club in 1911, the transliteration of their name from Russian – Central Sporting Klub of the Army – lends itself to the clubs initials and begets the club its nickname – ‘The Army Men’.

It’s other moniker – ‘Koni’ (horses) – is more widely used in Russia, and is a nod to their first stadium, built on an old Moscow racecourse. After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the club became privately owned but still lists the Ministry of Defense as a shareholder.

After WWII, CSKA established themselves as Russia’s most successful side by winning four titles from 1946-1950, but akin to most things in the country at that time, their success wasn’t sustained. Only sporadic triumph followed, including winning a league and cup double in 1991.

Then at the turn of the century, CSKA established themselves as one of Russia’s best-known sides on the continent, qualifying for the Champions League 13 time since its inception, six of those as champions of Russia, most recently in the 2016/17 campaign.

Aside from their relative consistency in qualifying, CSKA have been a side seen by many to simply make up the Champions League numbers, making it out of the group stage only twice. Their best ever showing in the tournament came in the 2009/10 season when they reached the quarter final stage, being knocked out by José Mourinho’s Inter Milan, the eventual winners of the competition.

This season’s Champions League draw sees the club also play Manchester United, Basel and Benfica,the latter of those three allowing them to take a trip back to the scene of their finest moment in Europe – the 2005 UEFA Cup when they beat Sporting 3-1 in the final, becoming the first Russian club to do so in the process.

The club will play Basel for the first time in their history but have a 100% winning record versus Swiss sides in European competition, having earned their place in the group stage with a 3-0 aggregate win over Young Boys of Bern.

Club stalwart and captain, goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev, has long been ridiculed for his inability to keep a clean sheet in the competition, a record stretching from 2006 to their qualifying win over AEK Athens. He then kept two against Young Boys in both legs, helping CSKA book their place in the draw.

In Manchester, CSKA have a case of ‘deja vu’. Three times in their last seven Champions League campaigns the club have drawn United in the group stage, the other two coming in 2009/10 and 2015/16, and in 2013/14 and 2014/15, they faced Manchester City in the group stage.

United have won only once in Russia, they will be looking to add to their solitary 2009 victory on Russian soil which they achieved in a 1-0 victory against CSKA in 2009. That result, of course, coming aside from winning the 2008 final in Moscow versus Chelsea.

However, it will be the first time United have played at CSKA’s home stadium – the 30,000 VEB Arena, with their last two Champions League ties being played at Luzhniki and Arena Khimki, two of CSKA’s temporary homes while the stadium was being constructed. The VEB Arena was completed in just 2016 and now stands as arguably the most stylish stadium in Moscow, aside from the aforementioned Luzhniki.

On the pitch, the club play a 3-5-2 with two wing backs, their best XI in that system line up with Akinfeev in goal behind a central defensive three of Berezutsky twins Aleksey and Vasily together with Viktor Vasin, accompanied by wing backs Mario Fernandes on the right and Georgi Schennikov on the left.

Swede Pontus Wernbloom provides the midfield anchor for Aleksandr Golovin and Alan Dzagoev to roam free and provide for Fedor Chalov and Brazilian Vitinho up front, although the latter is prone to misfire. Bibras Natcho is a fine player, and is a good addition to midfield in the instance of injury, being a force through the centre of the pitch.

Much of CSKA’s creative play runs through the mercurial attacking midfielder Aleksandr Golovin. Still just 21, it is difficult to believe Golovin is 21, such is the intelligence of his play. At picking holes in opposition defences, he is without doubt up there with the best in the country.  

He played every minute of Russia’s Confederations Cup run this summer, being a bright light in a dismal campaign and is deployed by manager Victor Goncharenko next to fellow creative prodigy Dzagoev.

Belarusian Goncharenko became the man to replace the idiosyncratic Leonid Slutsky, who left last December to become the first Russian manager in England at Hull City. Slutsky’s legacy at the club was perhaps overshadowed by his dismal term in charge of Russia at Euro 2016. But he nevertheless left CSKA in good enough shape for Goncharenko to steer the then champions into a second placed finish behind the unstoppable Spartak.

The team’s attack has flourished under Goncharenko, who at 40 is considered one of the bright young minds of Russian football, and is interestingly the youngest manager to lead a team in the Champions league group stage, a feat he achieved as coach of BATE Borisov in 2008.

Goncharenko was pragmatic in the assessment of the draw, insisting that last season’s Europa League winners Manchester United would be favourites, therefore his main rivals for qualification would be Benfica and Basel.

“Of course, the group favourite is Manchester United. They have strengthened well: signed Lukaku, Lindelof, and Ibrahimovic has come back for them. They have a very powerful team which mixes youth and experience. Rashford and Lingard look fantastic,” he told the club’s official website.  

“Plus we played at Old Trafford not long ago and we remember, that there is an unbelievable aura there. So you could call them the favourites, and us and Benfica and Basel will fight it out among ourselves.”

Given CSKA’s previous performances in the tournament, his words carry weight, and the fight will be an arduous, if not rewarding one.

Daniel Armstrong

Author: Daniel Armstrong

Danny Armstrong is a Moscow-based, FIFA-accredited sports journalist for RT.com, who has been writing & reporting for RFN since 2015. Previously Editor of the International Boxing Association (AIBA), he has also worked for the International Tennis Federation (ITF), and covered events such as the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup, the FED Cup, the Russian Premier League & world championship boxing. Also worked for BBC & The Moscow Times.

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