How will CSKA evolve in Europe post-Slutsky?

CSKA Moscow fans during the Champions League game against Tottenham in October 2016. Photo: Toke Theilade/RFN

CSKA Moscow fans during the Champions League game against Tottenham in October 2016. Photo: Toke Theilade/RFN

When CSKA Moscow lineup to play AEK Athens in Tuesday night’s UEFA Champions League third qualifying round tie, it will be a familiar sight, yet the manner of performance to come will hopefully be very different. European audiences have grown accustomed to the Army Men taking part at the highest level of club competition, featuring in 6 of the last 8 editions, however the key difference this time will be in the dugout; a first European season to assess the merits of Viktor Goncharenko, after 7 declining years in Europe with Leonid Slutsky.

Slutsky’s demise as head coach of CSKA surrounded the Champions League. Of course the fact they featured in the last four editions of the competition was proof that his side were performing domestically (three RFPL titles and two  Cups over his time in Moscow), but when it came to European football CSKA would regularly fail. Since his highly promising start, where CSKA made it all the way to the quarterfinals in 2010, a grim record reads; 11/12 – Round of 16, 13/14 – Group stage exit, 14/15 – Group stage exit, 15/16 – Group stage exit, 16/17 – Group stage exit.

CSKA do have plenty of apologies, some have their their merits. After all the current squad goes through another summer transfer window without sustained investment in the playing staff, paling in comparison to the likes of Zenit St. Petersburg and Spartak Moscow domestically, let alone even the most modest of budgets in the Champions League. The other understandable hindrance has been with their group stage draws, which have regularly been difficult. Last season’s in particular rubbed salt into the wound, pitting them against Bayer Leverkusen, Monaco and Tottenham Hotspur, despite the Russian champions at the time being amongst the top seeds.

There are no excuses to be had however in the style of play they’ve adopted. Far from the team that regularly blows away their domestic colleagues in the RFPL, CSKA under Slutsky were far more than purely defensive in Europe, they started matches with no hope and by the end of Slutsky’s tenure no logical plan. While CSKA sat deep, they did occasionally threaten on the counter, but it was often too rigid, even remaining loyal to the same outlook last term, with only the 2m+ Lacina Traore in attack, hardly a suitable option when you’re looking to play in behind

This stagnant approach had to change, ano such Viktor Goncharenko’s appointment is seen as key to changing their philosophy, both at home and abroad. Firstly came a formational shift, reverting to a defensive back three with wing backs, but with it should come a positive, refined forethought in European competition. The way in which CSKA tackle this season can on it’s own provide pride for Russian football fans, if success isn’t necessarily forthcoming initally.

CSKA have their strengths and their weaknesses, but some come rolled together. Their defence in particular has regularly been the greatest of contradictions. The experience brought to the fold by goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev, the Berezutski brothers and Sergei Ignashevich should be a real plus, given they have shared over a decade of Champions League action together, however they continue to ship goals on this stage. Akinfeev stretched his own unwanted record to 43 matches without a clean sheet last year, underlining their European woes perfectly. CSKA had the strongest defence in the RFPL last term (conceding only 15 goals), however continue to shoot themselves in the foot with individual mistakes in big matches (see Viktor Vasin’s against Spartak last season, and Lokomotiv this last weekend).

In attack, it again depends on your outlook. CSKA can’t rely on proven goalscoring output anymore, long gone are the days of Vagner Love, Seydou Doumbia and Ahmed Musa, instead their current strike force lacks regularity, none of whom could muster more than 6 goals last season. However, there is hope for the new campaign through Brazilian Vitinho who has returned for a second spell with the club, finally illustrating the potential which had been long promised (see his impulsive long range effort at the weekend) and with Fedor Chalov CSKA have one of the promising Russian strikers around, set to make a late run for the national team in a crucial home World Cup year for Sbornaya.

Evaluating their personnel, it’s hard to make a case that they are any stronger than CSKA sides of the recent past, but the key grain of hope is Goncharenko and his plans of tackling this important European campaign. Having to navigate AEK plus another likely strong opponent in the playoffs, the group stage is a long way off at present, but a fall back option of the Europa League (a competition generally missed by CSKA) is a fruitful avenue to plough through if they are unsuccessful.

The big news in Russian football over the last six months, was the award of an extra Champions League spot to come into action for this current season. With this has come a targeted approach from the likes of Spartak and Zenit to prioritise and succeed on the European stage. With a lack of financial muscle, CSKA’s hope that Viktor Goncharenko can inspire them to make it a three pronged attack for Russia in Europe, will be in plain sight, starting with a tournament debut  for the Belarussian away in Greece tomorrow night.

Author: Martin Lowe

Russian and Asian football follower and blogger.

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