UCL Group A Opposition: Between Hope and Reality for CSKA

The VEB-Arena, home of CSKA. Source: pfc-cska.ru

Less than 24 hours after CSKA clinched their way to Champions League Group Stage, UEFA held the group stage draw in Monaco. Since CSKA finished as the runner-up in the league – coupled with their low coefficients – they were placed in Pot 4 along with other minnows. SL Benfica, Manchester United, and FC Basel were drawn into group A to face the Army Men. Here we summmarise the other competitors in Group A, in order to visualize the competition as well as CSKA’s chance in the tournament.

SL Benfica

Crowned as the champion of the Portuguese Primeira Liga 2016/17, Benfica secured its place in the group stage automatically and was drawn in the first pot. To secure its campaign to win the league five times in a row, the management have signed several names to patch the squad up. With the departures of Ederson, Victor Lindelöf, and Nélson Semedo to Man City, Man Utd, and Barcelona respectively, Rui Vitória decided to strengthen their offensive line by signing Haris Seferović from Eintracht Frankfurt on a free transfer.

The addition of Seferović to the squad would allow Rui Vitória mix and match as well as easing the team rotation as the Eagles already has Raúl Jiménez, Jonas, and Konstantinos Mitroglou. After a series of trials during the summer break, Benfica managed to win the Portuguese Super Taça, thanks to  Jiménez, Jonas, and Seferović’s goals which silenced Vitória de Guimarães 3-1. So far, the combination of Jonas and Seferović had supplied 7 league goals from 3 matches.

Not only being superior in goal scoring, Águias also holds a pretty solid defensive as only two goals were netted against them. Opted the experienced Júlio César as a bench warmer, Rui Vitória  entrusted the newly signed Bruno Varela between the woodwork. It seems like losing Ederson to Man City did not weaken the defense, domestically atleast.

Benfica has officially only met CSKA twice. The only encounter happened more than a decade ago. At that time, CSKA and Benfica fought over a place in  UEFA Cup Round of 32 in 2004/2005. Under the tutelage of Valery Gazzaev, the Muscovites secured a victory at Kuban Stadium before they held Trapattoni’s boys 1-1 at Estádio da Luz while on their way to seize the UEFA Cup trophy. While we found many changes to the Benfica squad like any other professional club, the Army Men still use the same manpower in defence; the Berezutskiys and Ignashevich are regulars at CSKA, guarding the irreplaceable Igor Akinfeev under the crossbar.

Manchester United FC

English clubs have always been among the toughest opponents for CSKA. From the 17 meetings, CSKA could only snatch 3 wins and 5 draws from them; and Manchester United surely is one of the fiercest opponents. The post-Ferguson era is regarded as a dark age for Man Utd as bad performances and minor achievements were made during this turbulent time. Louis van Gaal finished his career off at Old Trafford with a smile when United defeated Crystal Palace 2-1 at the 2015/16 FA Cup final. Since the management was taken over by Jose Mourinho in summer 2016, the club found a Renaissance. Community Shield, League Cup, and Europa League trophies were brought in to Man Utd’s cabinet by the Portuguese manager last season.

Winning the Europa League meant an automatic slot for the Red Devils to the UCL Group Stage –although they finished the league in 6th place– and the target was set high. Romelu Lukaku was signed to replace Wayne Rooney, who re-joined his childhood club, Everton FC, while Nemanja Matić would make United’s second line even more terrifying where Paul Pogba and the Armenian hero, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, joined last season. Not to mention Zlatan Ibrahimović re-signing only a few hours before the UCL draw was held and their young attacker’s Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford.

This season, the Manchester giant has shown some promising results in both pre-season and the English Premier League. After losing 1-2 against Real Madrid in the UEFA Super Cup, Man Utd dominated the league by collecting six points from two games, scoring eight goals without conceding– seven of which came from Lukaku, Martial, and Pogba. Both of the offensive and defensive lines have great composure and goal scoring abilities, supported by creative yet tireless Matić and Mkhitaryan in the middle.

Without a doubt, the matches against Man Utd both home and away would be the toughest for CSKA. Back then, they were drawn together in the same group on 2009/10 and 2015/16 edition of UCL. The Muscovites failed to win a single game against the Red Devils but were able to forced United a stalemate, twice. During the UCL 2009/10, the Army Men even managed to lead 3-1 until Scholes and Valencia scored last minute equalizers for the home team.

FC Basel 1893

Last but not least, is the underdog of the group, FC Basel. Even though some dubbed FC Basel as the underdog, their achievements could not be taken easily. The RotBlau is the current holder of both the Swiss Super League and Schweizer Pokal, moreover, FC Basel retained the national league title for almost a decade, starting from the 2009/10 season.

As the dominant and biggest club in Switzerland, it is no wonder that Basel’s squad is full of international names. The Colombian and Paraguayan internationals, Éder Álvarez and Blás Riveros respectively, compose a good defense along with Manuel Akanji and Michael Lang; while ex-Spartak Marek Suchý supplies clearances for his Czezh Republic compatriot Tomáš VaclÍk.

Up front, the departure of Seydou “the beast” Doumbia back to AS Roma didn’t have a great impact for the team, so far. The fear of lack of goals was dismissed by the combination of Ricky van Wolfswinkel and RB Salzburg loanee, Dimitri Oberlin. Joined the squad from Vitesse Arnhem in early June, the ex-Norwich City striker has struck five goals in five league appearances and helped Basel sit comfortably in the European zone of Swiss League with 10 points as well. While the presence of Taulant Xhaka and Luca Zuffi would allow Mohammed Elyounoussi and Renato Steffen to even more exploit the opponent’s wing side.

As CSKA and Basel haven’t met up in an official occasion yet, there will be no benchmark to predict the games. Recently, FC Basel showed a better European campaign than CSKA when Bebbi reached the Round of 16 in 2014/15 season after beating Liveroool in the group stages –while CSKA finished last under Bayern Munich, Man City, and AS Roma. FC Basel poses a similar gameplan to Krasnodar, they play a high speed game and tries to control the ball often rather than wait-and-see.


Like any other season, this would never be an easy campaign for CSKA who started the season in a less convincing way. So far, the lack of goals from the offensive line could be covered up by the second line, thanks to Alan Dzagoev, Bibras Natkho, Aleksandr Golovin and Georgi Shchennikov. Yet, the management did nothing in response to the departure of Doumbia and Musa to Rome and Leicester respectively. Several names were mentioned to replace the six players who moved out of the club permanently; Arana (Corinthians), Esiti (Ghent), Stotsky (Ufa), Walace (HSV), and Wendel (Fluminense), but none of those players are natural strikers. To worsen things, the management did nothing on pursuing the target.

The other thing is an archaic defensive line. When Goncharenko reintroduced the 3-5-2 formation, CSKA would still face the problem of aging central defenders –you would get more than 100 if you add Ignashevich and the Berezutskiy’s ages. They would still be a solid wall in front of Akinfeev, but have surely lost some speed, and anticipation. The best plausible scenario for the Army Men is to finish third in the group and qualify for the Europa League. This scenario means CSKA must win the game against the Swiss representative while also hold either Man Utd or Benfica on a stalemate.

I believe that Goncharenko’s tactical ability would outperform the Raphaël Wicky’s, but the lack of squad’s depth and the management’s reluctance to land strong players are capable to hinder CSKA from achieving its target.

Author: Ruli Endepe

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