Champions League Group Stage Preview

United’s third opponents in this year’s Champions’ League Group stage are CSKA Moscow. CSKA finished second in the Russian Premier League last year only securing automatic qualification for this year’s Champions League on the last day of the season courtesy of a late goal by Swedish midfield player Pontus Wernbloom with 2 minutes of their final game remaining.

CSKA means Central Sports Club of the Army and although they are now a private company the Russian ministry of defence remains a major shareholder. After the Second World War the club thrived on this status winning five Soviet Championships in six seasons between 1946 and 1951 and seven in total across the full Soviet era. Since the current Russian Premier League was founded CSKA have won 5 titles, the most recent in the 2013-14 season. In 2003-04 they became the first Russian side to win a European trophy beating Sporting Lisbon 3-1 in the final of the then UEFA Cup on Sporting’s own ground in Lisbon.

They are currently managed by Leonid Slutsky, considered by many as favourite to take over management of the national team from Fabio Capello before too long. He tends to favour a 4-2-3-1 strategy which like our own Van Gaal relies upon a 6/4 defensive/attacking split.

Slutsky however has been known to vary his strategy in European competition, notably last season when he frustrated Manchester City in the group stages. Then in Moscow after going 0-2 down by half time CSKA fought back to claim a 2-2 draw by the final whistle. In that game CSKA’s wider advanced midfield players along with their number 10 dropped back to form a compact 4-5-1 denying City space between the lines. Pellegrini did not adapt and continued with his then usual 4-4-2 with his wide midfield players pushing high. When CSKA had the ball their shape quickly transformed to a 3-4-3 with Tosic and Milanov cutting inside as inverted wingers to form a midfield diamond. The fullbacks then pushed on as wing backs. None of this worked particularly well so at half time Slutsky changed to a 4-4-2 matching City’s shape utilising a number of substitutions to get back into the game. CSKA then pressed higher and after getting a goal back Pellegrini became defensive trying to hold on for the win. Fortunately CSKA got a penalty to take a point.

Slutsky has lost striker Seydou Doumbia since then but their midfield trio of Roman Eremenko, Zoran Tosic and Bibras Natcho remain a strength. Bibras Natcho, an Israeli international is perhaps a key player; he is a goal scoring midfield player with stamina and no little vision. The team revolves around him.

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CSKA Moscow’s shape in their first group stage game against Wolfsburg and key man Natcho

There weakness is perhaps their defence which is ageing; central defenders Ignashevich is 36 whilst his partner Berezutski is 33. These two can be exposed, especially in the half spaces requiring Wernbloom to cover, especially if Natcho presses on looking to create. Mata from the right or either Memphis or Rooney from the left must look to exploit these areas on the counter-attack.