Why CSKA Moscow and their brilliant coach can give Manchester United grief

Michael Yokhin introduces the tight-knit troop on a high, and gunning for Louis van Gaal’s side with their speedy frontmen...

Who are they?

The last two months have been the busiest, the happiest and the most successful in Leonid Slutsky’s career. CSKA Moscow’s coach was urgently called in August to rescue the Russian national team after the disastrous spell under Fabio Capello, and duly performed a remarkable turnaround by winning all four matches in charge to guide the next World Cup hosts to direct qualification for Euro 2016.

At the same time, CSKA have proved to be nearly unstoppable in the Russian Premier League, winning 11 and drawing three of their 14 games to build a very healthy nine-point lead at the top en route to what could be their third championship title in four years.

Leonid Slutsky

Slutsky didn't have a distinguished playing career, but is impressing in the dugout

And if that wasn’t enough, Slutsky worked miracles in the Champions League as well. CSKA showed extraordinary character in the qualifying rounds to beat Sparta Prague and Sporting Lisbon, coming from behind in both duels. They were 2-0 down away against the Czechs, after drawing the first leg 2-2, but scored thrice to make it 3-2 and prevail. The Russians then lost 2-1 in Portugal and trailed at half-time in Moscow in the return leg, but again scored the three goals they needed to make it through.

Finally, after the marginal defeat at Wolfsburg, they comfortably defeated PSV Eindhoven on home soil. And after coming within 25 minutes of victory against Manchester United a fortnight ago, they'll be feeling both confident and lucky. Everything has gone Slutsky’s way this season, and there is no reason to believe his amazing journey should end on Wednesday.

Yevgeny Giner believed in Slutsky ever since choosing him in late 2009, and even refused to accept his resignation in May 2012 when the targets were not met. The prizes were immense

CSKA most certainly deserve everything they achieve. They aren’t the richest club in Russia, but are by far the best managed. Ever since Yevgeny Giner bought the club in 2001 he has tried to make it both successful and profitable, using a quality scouting network rather than signing overpriced superstars. CSKA became the first Russian club in history (including the Soviet era) to lift a European trophy – the UEFA Cup in 2005.

Stability and harmony are of major importance, and Slutsky is the perfect man for the job. Giner believed in the young coach ever since choosing him in late 2009, and even refused to accept his resignation in May 2012 when the targets were not met. The prizes were immense – back-to-back championship titles in 2013 and 2014.

Leonid Slutsky

"Tonight Matthew I'm going to be... Russia!"

Unfortunately, they weren’t followed by success in the Champions League, largely because of very tough draws. CSKA went out to Bayern Munich and Manchester City two years ago, and got the very same superpowers plus Roma last season to finish bottom of their group again (though not before winning 2-1 at the Etihad Stadium). The group isn’t too favourable this time either, but it is more comfortable nevertheless, and the team is more experienced.

Slutsky remembers perfectly well that his Champions League debut took place at Old Trafford in November 2009 and he almost won, only for Paul Scholes and Antonio Valencia to make it 3-3 in a dramatic finish. Later on, CSKA defeated Wolfsburg and finished second in the group behind the Red Devils, eventually reaching the quarter-finals. Apparently, meeting United brings him luck.

The group isn’t too favourable this time either, but it is more comfortable nevertheless, and the team is more experienced

Strengths

CSKA’s main strengths lie in their teamwork and togetherness. They are careful not to sign players who might disrupt the perfect atmosphere in the dressing room, and every new member of the squad immediately feels at home. Naturally, such unity is especially strong when everything seems to be going their way like these days.

Many of the players are in very good form, including Zoran Tosic (two goals in his last two games), who will be delighted to prove a couple of points to the club that didn’t believe in him and sold him to CSKA in 2010. Newly appointed Nigeria captain Ahmed Musa has scored 10 goals in all competitions this season, and Seydou Doumbia 11 – both are lethal in front of goal.

Alan Dzagoev is on song for club and country this season, and it is also important to mention Pontus Wernbloom, the tough, no-nonsense defensive midfielder who is phenomenal in the air and has a habit of scoring the most crucial goals.

Weaknesses

The central defenders, 36-year-old Sergei Ignashevich and the 33-year-old Berezutsky twins, Vasily and Aleksei, are vastly experienced and have played together with goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev for more than a decade now – a unique partnership by any standards. There are many positives to such stability, but one cannot overlook the negatives. All the centre-backs are ageing and rather slow, and thus can be taken apart by quick opposition. It is no coincidence that Akinfeev has failed to keep a clean sheet in the Champions League for 34 games in a row – an amazing record dating back to 2006 when CSKA fought for a goalless draw at Arsenal.

Igor Akinfeev

You'd have thought Akinfeev was used to it by now

Another significant problem is the poor form of star Finnish playmaker Roman Eremenko, who has struggled for fitness this season. His good friend, Israeli midfielder Bibras Natkho, is injured for the first game against United. Dzagoev will have to be at his best without him if CSKA are to stand any chance in the midfield battle.

The gameplan

CSKA like to control the ball, but are especially dangerous on the counter, when Musa’s lightning speed becomes the major weapon

Slutsky almost always uses the 4-2-3-1 system, with Doumbia as the lone striker and Musa and Tosic on the wings, even though he’s somewhat surprisingly tried to pair the Nigerian with the Ivorian up front on a couple of occasions this season. Wernbloom holds the midfield, allowing the full-backs to roam forward at will. CSKA like to control the ball, but are especially dangerous on the counter, when Musa’s lightning speed becomes the major weapon.

Key player

It is difficult to name a single star in a unit famous for its teamwork, but Doumbia probably stands out. The Ivorian star was sold to Roma in January for €14 million, and came back on loan for just €1m in August after failing to settle in Serie A – another great example of CSKA’s remarkable success in the transfer market. He netted the opener against United in the last matchday, after Eremenko's penalty was initially saved by David de Gea. 

Famous for…

In 2013, the pitch at the Khimki Arena was in such a poor state ahead of the game against Manchester City that CSKA decided to paint the surface green. Such bizarre actions will not be needed this time – Khimki is actually a nice stadium, but it is way too small and too distant from Moscow’s centre. This will be CSKA’s last campaign there. Their new state-of-the-art stadium has been built, and it will be opened in early 2016.

The amazing Vsevolod Bobrov captained both the Soviet football team at the 1952 Olympics and the Soviet hockey team at the 1956 Winter Olympics

Club legend

CSKA are a club of heritage with many legends. One of them is the amazing Vsevolod Bobrov, who played football and ice hockey at the same time in the ‘40s and the ‘50s. He captained both the Soviet football team at the 1952 Olympics and the Soviet hockey team at the 1956 Winter Olympics – the only sportsman in history to do so.

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