After a win in their first group game United now continue this year’s Champions’ League adventure with a trip to Russia for a game against CSKA Moscow. Formerly the Russian army side CSKA have been one of the most successful clubs in post-soviet Russia football. They have won 13 of the Championships played since 1992, including 7 between 1992 and 1999. They then won three Championships in the first ten years of the new century and another three recently in 2012-13, 2013-14 and 2015-16.

Those last three championships came under Leonid Slutsky but a run of poor form in late 2016 saw him resign to be replaced by current boss Viktor Goncharenko. He stabilised the club last year moving them up the table to a second place finish which ensured that they secured a place in this year’s Champions’ League qualifying rounds. They breezed through those stages with aggregate victories over AEK Athens and Swiss side Young Boys without conceding a goal.

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CSKA’S starting team against Benfica and Alexandr Golovin, current Russian international regarded as the countries best player.

In their opening group game they recorded what many saw as a surprise win over Benfica in Lisbon coming from behind to win 2-1 with two second half goals. This makes this a first versus second top of the table match, if there can be such a thing in a four team league.

Some history

We have of course met CSKA a few times before, always in the group stages of the competition. Our first meeting was in 2009-10 when we won 1-0 at Old Trafford and drew 3-3 in Moscow. Those results were repeated in 2015-16 when we drew 1-1 in Russia and 1-0 at Old Trafford. In fact United have never lost to a Russian side in Russia, (including Roman Abramovich’s Chelsea of course), with our only defeat against Russian opposition being a 1-2 defeat in the UEFA Super Cup game in 2008 played in Monaco.

Viktor Goncharenko

CSKA manager Viktor Goncharenko is from Belarus and played all his own football there before being forced to retire due to injury at the young age of 25. His final club was BATE Borisov with whom he won two Belarusian titles. After retirement in 2002 he turned to coaching and worked at BATE from 2002 to 2007 as assistant manager and then became their manager in 2007. Whilst he was assistant BATE won two Belarusian titles but then between 2008 and 2013 under his stewardship they won 6 further titles and enjoyed some modest success in the Champions’ League. Their most famous result was a 3-1 victory over Bayern Munich in a 2012-13 group stage game.

Viktor Goncharenko

Viktor Goncharenko

This success caught the attention of Russian clubs and Goncharenko subsequently moved to Kuban Krasnodar in 2013. That appointment didn’t go well, nor di a brief spell at Ural Yekaterinburg before Slutsky appointed him as his assistant in 2015. He was however tempted away to try his hand as manager elsewhere before long before being tempted back to CSKA IN December last year, this time not as assistant but as manager.

This season

This year things are going fairly well for CSKA. We have already mentioned their opening win in the Champions’ League. They currently sit 4th in the Russian Premier League having won 20 points from eleven games. At the weekend they drew 0-0 in a game against local rivals Dinamo Moscow but the headline from the game was a concussion to wingback Mario Fernandes who consequently isn’t expected to play against United. Attacking midfield player Aleksandr Makarov is also likely to miss the game with an ankle injury.

Tactical Approach

So its wingbacks then? Goncharenko CSKA have switched from Slutsky’s favoured 4-2-3-1 formation to a 3-5-2 shape. This features three centrebacks, usually the Berezutski twin either side of Vasin with Schennikov and Fernandes as the wingbacks. Ahead of these players CSKA usually field a three man central midfield and two strikers.

Usually one of the two strikers will tend to drop off and one push on. The striker dropping off then acts as a bridge between midfield and attack sometimes drifting wide to link up with the advancing wingbacks. CSKA usually use the flanks to launch attacks before delivering a cross towards the centre. These crosses are varied between high floating and low drilled crosses.

Goncharenko often changes his wingbacks to suit the nature of the opponent or match situation. In a game against a strong opponent CSKA have often fielded fullbacks as wingbacks but switched to converted wingers as wingbacks against weaker sides.

In central midfield CSKA set up with a triangle of one holding player and two more advanced midfield players, one to the left and one to the right. As they attack one of this pair will push higher on the side where the move is instigated and will look to combine with the advancing wingback of one of the strikers dropping off. In doing this they look to create overloads and draw the opposition team towards them before either quickly switching or delivering one of those crosses. The advantage of this push into the half space and of one of the advanced midfield players holding their deeper position is that they can confidently resist a break against them with the holding midfield player adjusting his position laterally to the ball position in the attacking move.

Playmaker Alan Dzagoev, here in action for Russia against Poland

Playmaker Alan Dzagoev, here in action for Russia against Poland

CSKA under Gonacharenko also press high. Against weaker sides again this approach is varied with both strikers and the wingbacks pushing high to deny opponents an out ball. Against weaker sides only the strikers will press initially offering the opponent space to pass out wide. This often forces the team in possession to pass long from the back and results in a loss of possession. Will CSKA try this against United. They might be more likely to do this as a consequence of Fellaini’s absence but actually one would expect Lukaku to act as an equally effective target as the Belgian.

This should be a really interesting game. We would expect it to be a tight game with both teams setting up to be fairly cagey. Who will blink first? Not Jose.