United return to Russia in a European competition for the third year in a row this week (and have again kindly paid for travelling reds’ VISAs). It was a strong start in the first match-day of the Champions League for José Mourinho’s men, as they defeated FC Basel 3-0. It’s arguably the toughest match of the group stage on paper for the Reds now, coming off the back of a hard-fought win at the weekend.
Viktor Gonchareko’s side started the season strongly but a defeat in the domestic cup, and a draw against one of their Moscow rivals Dinamo at the weekend, means they sit comfortably in 4th in the the table; with 11 league matches played. Although, in their first Champions League outing a fortnight ago, CSKA defeated Benfica in Portugal, which shows their strength at this time and in the competition. It seemed a breeze in qualifying for the army-affiliated club, with no goals conceded as they beat AEK Athens & BSC Young Boys.
Not much has changed at the Russian outfit since United’s last visit in the group stages two years ago. Playing a 3-5-2 system most of the time, it’s clear to see they rely on an experienced defensive unit that are most of the time reliable. That unit contains some recognisable Russian names such as goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev, along with burly centre-backs Aleksei Berezutski, Vasili Berzutski, and Sergei Ignashevich. In the midfield, Alan Dzageov, Bebras Natcho, and Roman Ermenko provide the goals & assists most of the time. Going forward, a common duo of Aaron Samuel Olanare & Vitinho have goals to their name this season. Full-back Mário Fernandes and midfielder Aleksandr Makarov are both expected to miss the match due to injury. A tense atmosphere is sure to fire both teams up and it could be a noisy night.
For United, the squad that has travelled to Moscow is lacking of some of the best performers this season. Antonio Valencia, Phil Jones, Michael Carrick, Marouane Fellaini, and Paul Pogba have all been left in Manchester. Still without Marcos Rojo and Zlatan Ibrahimović through injury, some squad players should get their chance on the night. Scott McTominay has flown out and Jesse Lingard made his Champions League debut in this fixture two season ago under Louis van Gaal. There’s unlikely to be a change of system for the reds who will need to be at their attacking best to penetrate the opponent’s back-line. Speaking of a back-line, Eric Bailly returns from European suspension but it may the cup pairing of Chris Smalling & Victor Lindelöf who start in front of either David De Gea or Sergio Romero in goal.
Matteo Darmian and Ashley Young, two men who have helped out in abundance as of late are likely to be the full-backs unless Axel Tuanzebe or Daley Blind gets the nod. Anthony Martial & Marcus Rashford could again gain a start if Romelu Lukaku is rested. Henrik Mkhitaryan & Juan Mata will likely be challenging for the play-maker role too. Behind them, Ander Herrera & Nemanja Matić are most likely to solidify United’s team. United switched to a 3-5-2 the last time they were in Russia to match their opponents and it isn’t out of the question that they could do it again despite their 4-2-3-1 success so far. The man in charge on the night, Mourinho said this week that they key to mainting good form was to “be dominant but humble”. He’ll be hoping his side can continue their unbeaten run on their 10th game of the season. Jonas Eriksson last refereed when United were beaten by Bayern in 2014 in David Moyes’ final Champions League match.
In the midst of away matches, Mourinho and his squad will hope he can return home happy before a Premier League match before the International Break this weekend. CSKA Moscow aren’t to be underestimated and if they can win, it would help them greatly in terms of qualifying. The outcome of this match could play a big role in who qualifies for the knockout stages.