CSKA Moscow is not a club you would associate with fairytales.
Soviet Top League and Russian Premier League champions a combined 13 times, the early 2000s saw CSKA emerge as a dominant force in Russian football, capped off by success in the 2005 UEFA Cup – but it wasn’t always like this.
Prior to the significant investment of Evgeniy Giner and Roman Abramovich-owned firms like Sibneft and Aeroflot, CSKA Moscow was an altogether different club.
Stuck in the doldrums of the Russian second tier for much of the 1980s, it took the arrival of the late, great, Pavel Sadyrin to wake the club from its slumber.
A former Soviet championship winner with Zenit St. Petersburg whose success at CSKA would land him the Russia national team manager’s job, Sadyrin guided the Armeitsy back into the top-flight at the first time of asking.
The good times continued from there with CSKA finishing second in the first season back in the top-flight before going one better in 1991 with a first league title in 21 years.
Having been, for so long, a by-product of the Red Army-owned club’s success in other sports, suddenly CSKA were starting to grab the limelight.
Russian Cup winners in the same season, the club looked primed for European success, but it rarely works out that way for Europe’s lesser lights and there would be no fairytale for CSKA her either.
Eliminated from the Cup Winners Cup in 1992 on away goals by AS Roma, CSKA’s title-winning squad was quickly catching the eye of clubs across Europe.
In the off-season, Russia’s off-season top scorer Dmitri Kuznetsov left for Espanyol along with Igor Korneev amd Dmitri Galiamin while the veteran Vladimir Tatarchuk headed to Slavia Prague.
You could hardly blame them with their homeland in political and economic disarray and the bright lights of La Liga offering obvious financial rewards and an escape from the stifling problems of the eat.
CSKA’s issues extended far beyond a transfer exodus though – the club’s first-choice goalkeeper and much-loved club stalwart Mikhail Yeremin had died after his car crashed on the way home from the club’s Soviet Cup victory, leaving those behind bereft.
With the dissolution of the Soviet Union disrupting the football schedule, CSKA Moscow found themselves in the inaugural season of the UEFA Champions League almost a year later.
Sadyrin, by then, had departed for the Russia job ahead of World Cup ’94, with his former assistant Gennadi Kostylev replacing him.
Largely deployed as an assistant manager throughout his coaching career, Kostylev was tasked with rebuilding the team and progressing the team through the qualifying stages of the European Cup.
There was just one team standing in their way: Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona.
Major underdogs going into their second round European Cup tie, CSKA had dispatched Iceland’s Vikingur in the previous round and had reason to be optimistic after seeing the European Cup holders labour to a 1-0 aggregate victory over Norway’s Viking.
Despite this optimism, a team boasting the talents of Michael Laudrup, who would later coach archrivals Spartak Moscow, Ronald Koeman, Hristo Stoichkov, Aitor Begiristain and Josep Guardiola travelled to Luzhniki expecting to make short work of CSKA’s largely unknown side, save for future Chelsea goalkeeper Dmitri Kharine.
But on a night where reputations went out the window, it was Barca that erred first, with Guardiola, the most consummate of midfield passers, gifting the Russians the early initiative after losing the ball midway in his own half to Aleksandr Grishin.
Seizing his opportunity with aplomb, Grishin slotted home past Andoni Zubizarreta to give the home support some much-needed relief from the rigours of Russian life, during a time when the nation’s economy was close to collapse.
Leading at half time, CSKA soon received a stark reminder of Barcelona’s abilities early into the second period, with Beguiristain finishing off a fine team move to hand the Catalans the initiative once again.
Like so many times before, CSKA fans were reminded: they didn’t do fairytales.
Requiring either a win or a high-scoring draw from the return leg at the Camp Nou, CSKA’s task looked almost impossible against Cruyff’s dream team, a side that was half-way through a four-year period of back-to-back La Liga titles.
Even the locals saw the game as a non-event, with Barca’s 120,000+ stadium only two-thirds full for the return game, while few away fans had made the long and fraught journey from the Russian capital.
Both sets of fans soon appeared vindicated too when the Catalans raced into a 2-0 lead with Miguel Nadal heading in the opener from a corner and Begiristain adding a second after beating CSKA’s badly managed offside trap.
Dejected and in defensive disarray, many a team would have crumbled 2-0 to the Champions of Europe in the intimidating atmosphere of the Camp Nou but the reduced attendance brought a subdued atmosphere to proceedings and, as the half progressed, the away side began to play.
When Liverpool fans look back on the Miracle of Istanbul, most pinpoint Steven Gerrard’s early second-half header as the spark the lit the fuse of arguably the greatest comeback in Champions League history.
For CSKA Moscow, that same spark came minutes before half-time when defender Yevgeni Bushmanov thundered home a crucial away goal.
A ball-playing centre-back who had arrived from reigning champions Spartak earlier that year, Bushmanov would probably have caught the eye of Guardiola, the coach, in 2016 operating as something approaching a deep-lying playmaker for CSKA.
As it was, he first caught the attention of Guardiola, the player, after leading a breakaway attack that saw him expertedly control a quickfire pass on the edge of the Barca box before thundering home to reduce the arrears before half-time.
In a matter of seconds, the game had been turned on its head – CSKA needed only a single second half goal to progress on away goals and had plenty of time to find it.
The second period saw another, more surprising, CSKA player take centre stage though.
In a 19-year playing career, Dmitri Karsakov would turn out for no fewer than 15 teams, including four separate spells with CSKA.
A journeyman midfielder who wasn’t known for his goalscoring prowess, against a Barcelona side looking to keep the ball in the second half, Karsakov came to life.
On 57 minutes, a corner given away by Nadal gave CSKA the perfect opportunity to respond with Denis Mashkarin, completely unmarked, allowed to head in the crucial leveller after the cross from Karakov.
Even better was to come though as mere minutes later a superb counter-attacking move saw Karakov finish off the Catalans with an audacious back-heel finish.
Barcelona were the ones finished though, requiring two goals to progress but unable to find a response in the final half hour of the game, as Kostylev’s team shut down the game.
It was a result unlike any ever witnessed in the Russia game though there was just one problem – no Russian television station had been able to afford the price tag placed on broadcasting rights by hosts Barcelona while few newspapers could afford to send reporters to the game.
The fairytale result the club had worked so hard for had gone largely unnoticed and it would only get worse from there.
Forced to play their subsequent group stage home games in neighbouring Germany, CSKA managed a meagre two points from six games with the low point coming courtesy of a 6-0 drubbing at the hands of eventual winners Marseille.
It would be seven years before CSKA graced the competition again, with Kostylev departing the club a year later. Their next dalliance in the Champions League – a second round qualifying defeat to Molde in the 1999/2000 edition – would prove less memorable still.
Played just months after Manchester United had been crowned champions on a memorable night in the Camp Nou, the Koni may not have enjoyed the same fairytale ending but, like they say, sometimes the truth can be stranger than fiction.
Follow Jack on Twitter: @JackBeresford86