Season Preview: CSKA Moscow

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

Losing the championship to your rival just ten kilometers down the road wouldn’t normally count as a “win” for a club as proud as CSKA Moscow, but looking at the entire season as a whole, finishing 2nd and gaining a UEFA Champions League berth is about as positive as any CSKA fan could hope for. Trailing Spartak Moscow by a comfortable distance at the winter break meant that a realistic goal was not to challenge for the title, but to leapfrog Zenit St. Petersburg in order to finish second. Though CSKA was in 3rd position as late as Matchday 26, the Army Men maintained their nerve and were able to comfortably see out their campaign finishing the season with four straight victories to clinch 2nd and the coveted Champions League berth.

Moving into this season CSKA will enter their first full year underneath the guidance of Belarussian Viktor Goncharenko. While many were sad to see Leonid Slutsky leave in January, it was apparent that a change at the top was needed and this is the season where Goncharenko makes the Red-Blues truly his team. If CSKA can maintain the exciting, attacking style of play this season, which they showed near the end of last season, expect the VEB Arena to be loud with their proud supporters once again.

Head coach
Googling “CSKA Moscow coach” results in the top responses still pointing to Leonid Slutsky. Though the legend moved on back in December the mark he left on CSKA is impossible to overlook. Though he arrived in January Viktor Goncharenko now has the opportunity to fully put his stamp on the team and its identity. Being tactically innovative, Goncharenko has been a breath of fresh air and fans certainly believe in his 3-5-2 after his marvelous work helped bring the Army Men (and their fans) out of the doldrums and helped them leapfrog dreaded rivals Zenit in the final standings.

Greatest strength
As has been the case as long as many of us can remember, the strength of CSKA comes from their almost impenetrable defense. Having allowed a paltry 15 goals all of last season while at the same time keeping their entire defensive personnel it would be safe to bet that CSKA will be one of the best teams again when it comes to the goals allowed category. Though some might wonder at the effectiveness of the aging unit of the Berezutski twins, Aleksey and Vasily, and Sergei Ignashevich, with Viktor Vasin controlling the back 3 and the legendary Igor Akinfeev behind him, the CSKA defense will be difficult to beat once again this season.

Greatest weakness
The biggest weakness for CSKA for this season is probably a lack of depth at key positions. Apart from the injury-prone Alan Dzagoev, CSKA was able to stay remarkably healthy all of last season. This hid the potentially devastating lack of depth at some key positions. Now that Aleksey Ionov has returned to Dinamo Moscow, Zoran Tosic has moved on, and Roman Eremenko is still under suspension; should Aleksandr Golovin move to greener pastures, there are spots where the quality will decline rapidly should a player go down injured. As long as players like Akinfeev, Pontus Wernbloom and Mario Fernandes can stay healthy then CSKA will be ok. Should any of these players go down early in the season though, it could create holes that other teams could exploit for the entire season.

Key player
Mario Fernandes, who recently became eligible for the Russian national team, is an absolute key player for CSKA. Anyone who has had the pleasure to consistently watch Fernandes tirelessly man the right touchline knows that he not only regularly displays a high level of defensive prowess, but also consistently displays an attacking creativity that so often goes missing. It’s no coincidence that when CSKA faces its toughest foes, it is Fernandes who shines the brightest. CSKA’s best work of the offseason might’ve been to renew Fernandes’ contract through 2021/2022.

Young starlet
At the beginning of last year only the most diehard fans would’ve been raving about the possibilities of Fedor Chalov. It wasn’t until he scored four goals in the same game against AS Monaco in the UEFA Youth Champions League that people began paying attention to his talent. As the season moved into the spring, Chalov not only received quality minutes under Goncharenko but he even earned a few starts in games down the stretch which certainly still held significance for CSKA and their final spot in the table, and he thanked for the trust put in him with goals. After notching goals in some preseason friendlies it would seem that Fedor Chalov is set to maintain the confidence which is so important for a forward, and continue to score goals for CSKA Moscow this season.

Season prediction
A large part of CSKA’s season being deemed a success will depend on if they can navigate the 3rd qualifying round in the Champions League in order to return to the group stage. If CSKA can stay healthy, winning the title and finishing in the top 3 in their UCL group is a difficult, but definitely attainable outcome. That being said though, a more realistic season for CSKA is probably 2nd behind the dreaded rivals to the north alongside another 4th place finish in the Champions League group stage.

Author: Andrew Wiese

American in Moscow. Atlanta United supporter. Used to watch the snowy CSKA Moscow games on TV as a kid thinking, “Who would go watch a game in that weather?” Now I know the answer to that… me.

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