Ahead of Wednesday night’s Champions League clash between Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United and CSKA Moscow, I talked to Russian football experts Toke Theilade, editor in chief of www.russian footballnews.com, and Alan Moore, sports broadcaster and host of Capital Sports on Moscow’s Capital FM, about the Russian side.
Can CSKA trouble Manchester United? If so, how?
Toke: CSKA isn’t a team you should underestimate. They have plenty of experience from European football, and they obviously have some quality in the squad. However, the CSKA team of today is significantly weaker than the one that beat Manchester City a few seasons ago. So, it would be a massive surprise if CSKA manage to get anything away from the game. If they do, the decisive factor will be United’s motivation. If United arrive in Moscow, and think it will be an easy task, and if Mourinho plays too many reserves, then CSKA can pose a threat.
Alan: Agreed. CSKA won’t make it easy. On paper United are miles better, though football is played on grass, or what passed for it in Rostov this year. A draw looks on for Moscow, it depends on what mentality United come with. CSKA don’t have much to threaten United with except very cold weather. Much may also depend on how much CSKA have left after Saturday’s Moscow derby with Dinamo.
Who should we watch out for in the CSKA side? Any exciting talent – young or old?
Toke: 21-year-old midfielder Aleksandr Golovin is the man everybody talks about these days. He is an exciting creative midfielder, who has the time kind of potential as Alan Dzagoev did once he broke through. He is already a regular on both CSKA and the Russian national team. As with any other Russian youngster, however, the big question is whether he lives up to the hype by moving abroad and joining a big club, ends up just hanging around Russia forever like Dzagoev did before him.
Alan: If the Brazilian Vitinho is fit and plays, he could pose a threat. He’s not an out-and-out goalscorer, but can be dangerous around the box. As Toke says, Golovin is the new bright boy, but has a tendency to drift in and out of games.
I note that CSKA appear to play a 3-5-2 formation – with two veterans in Berezutski and Ignasevich as part of the three. Given their age, I’m taking it CSKA do not play with a high line! How will they approach the United game? Will they sit back and try to catch them on the break?
Toke: CSKA manager Viktor Goncharenko has actually benched Ignashevich in the most important games. Instead, he has opted for the Berezutski twins and then 28-year-old Viktor Vasin. Although Vasin shouldn’t be considered a quick defender by any means, he is a bit quicker than the old boys. He is, however, prone to mistakes and has cost CSKA on several occasions since becoming a regular at the beginning of this year.
CSKA will hope for counter attacks, where they can use the speed of their strikers to hit United. If CSKA can get a draw against United, it will be a great result, so don’t expect Goncharenko’s men to go all in when attacking.
Alan: Agreed, CSKA won’t be doing an Arsenal for sure. Their wingers spend a lot of their time covering, as they showed in their recent triumph over champions Spartak. Positioning and reading the game is what their defenders will look to excel at, though if United put out a speedy side, it could get ugly. That said, Mourinho will most likely play into Goncharenko’s hands. CSKA are steady this season, creeping up the table, despite slip ups, and Goncharenko is the ideal European football manager.
How do CSKA normally play – an attacking side or a conservative outfit?
Toke: In the Russian Premier League, CSKA is a team that controls the pace of the game. The majority of the clubs in Russia play with five defenders and sit back, when they face clubs like CSKA; so it is up to the big teams to open up their defences. This is usually a tough job, so CSKA are used to passing the ball back and forward for quite some time before finding the necessary gap.
They have, however, become a more direct team under Goncharenko. They aren’t playing with wingers anymore, but instead with wingbacks, and when the possibility arises, they prefer to move the ball forward quickly. Under Slutsky, they usually played in a 4-2-3-1 formation with wide wingers. These days, they have Mario Fernandes (right) and Georgy Shchennikov (left) as wingbacks.
Alan: They will bore most teams to death and break quickly. They have playmakers like Dzagoev and Natkho who can control the tempo. And while United have the potential to destroy them, once CSKA get the ball they are very comfortable passing it about.
I see they spent very little money in the summer window. Why was this?
Toke: They don’t have that much money these days. Their owner Evgeny Giner has lost a lot of money recently, and he also spent a lot of money building their brand new stadium. In the past two transfer windows, they haven’t brought in anyone noteworthy, while they have sold quite a few players.
Their general director, Roman Babaev, recently said that they tried to sign back former icons Ahmed Musa, Vagner Love and Seydou Doumbia this summer, but that they were all too expensive. I think he was just trying to save face, because none of them were really realistic targets to begin with, and it seemed both uncreative and foolish to only target former stars like those.
Alan: FFP also played a role, so they didn’t overspend. They have less money than before, as Toke points out, but remain one of the few clubs who don’t miss salary payments. And to back up what Toke says on targets, Babaev also told us at Capital Sports that there wasn’t much out there in Russia to bring in.
Who is owner Evgeny Giner?
Toke: Giner is a wealthy businessman who is generally well liked among CSKA fans because he has built the club up to what they are today. When he bought them, they were nowhere near the top, but now they are a part of not only the Russian elite but also the European. There are, however, some rumours that he might be looking to sell the club at some point, and the future isn’t as bright as it used to be.
He is a slightly controversial character in Russian football. He has often been linked with organised crime, although without any hard evidence, and CSKA’s opponents have often accused him of bribing both opponents and referees.
Alan: On paper, Evgeni Giner is the club owner, though where he gets his money is a different story. Abramovich sold off his interest, we are led to believe, and the Military no longer have ties, though this is not quite true. Giner is the master conspiracy theorist, he always accused other clubs of buying results etc., then suddenly it turned when CSKA got some success and he became a lightning rod.
He’s an okay guy, though he’d go into a revolving door behind you yet exit in front of you.
CSKA produced a shock win away to Benfica in the first round of group fixtures. Does that suggest they should not be underestimated – or could it be that Benfica are not particularly strong after the exit of a number of players over the summer?
Toke: Well, of course CSKA shouldn’t be underestimated. They are after all still a good football team. However, Benfica were quite dominant in the game, and it is way too early to brand CSKA as a group favourite. They have caused upsets previously only to fall through against easy opponents later. I still can’t see them advance to the Champions League playoff, but would love to be surprised of course.
Alan: It surprised us on Capital Sports as we were expecting a draw, even our reporter at the stadium saw it that way too. I think Benfica lost concentration, but fair play to CSKA, they were ultimately worth their win. They had a tough time qualifying and are determined to do well.
CSKA have finished bottom of their Champions League group in each of the last 4 seasons, could they break that trend? Is qualification out of the question?
Toke: Not after the victory against Benfica. But I don’t believe in it yet. CSKA have failed in easier groups than this one, and the squad simply doesn’t have that European x-factor that is needed to achieve significant European results. If they finish third in the group and goes to the Europa League, they should be happy.
Alan: Third place is the aim. Benfica will recover, but CSKA will finish 3rd. The Europa League will be a nice money boost and they can do well there.
Can they challenge Zenit for the Russian title?
Toke: With the risk of sounding foolish: no. Zenit spent more on players this summer than the rest of the league combined, and they have played really well under Roberto Mancini’s reign.
CSKA’s objective should be to qualify for the Champions League again. With the club’s financial worries, the money from the Champions League is absolutely vital.
Alan: In short, no. The title is Zenit’s to lose. CSKA are too inconsistent – beating Spartak then losing to Tosno. CSKA will be top four, maybe third.
CSKA are apparently focusing on a youth policy. Is this because they are lacking finance – or because they have some grander plan?
Toke: No one in Russia has a grand plan, so that’s definitely not the case. It all comes down to the fact that they cannot afford the signings they need. Therefore, they have to fill the squad with youngsters. These youngsters have done quite well however, and guys like Chalov and Zhamaletdinov look like exciting prospects. Nevertheless, they are still far from the level we usually combine with CSKA regulars.