Crvena Zvezda vs CSKA Moscow – Tuesday, February 13, 17:00 GMT/18:00 CET – Marakana – Belgrade, Serbia
Last week, Crvena Zvezda’s appeal against their stadium ban for a supporters’ banner backing Bosnian Serb war criminal Ratko Mladic was successful, meaning a full house will back them for their Europa League first leg. Like their Russian opponents, they have just come back from a winter break, so will have similar concerns about match fitness, although they have already faced CSKA’s compatriots Zenit in Turkey on their training camp, losing narrowly.
On paper, they don’t possess the quality of CSKA and should struggle over the two legs. Five players in their squad during the first half of the season – Damien Le Tallec, Guelor Kanga, Milan Rodić, Branko Jovičić and Mitchell Donald – have played for struggling sides in the Russian Football Premier League in the last 18 months, and all have earned significant playing time this season. The news about the stadium being full will be a huge boost the Serbians though, who rely heavily on the atmosphere at home to intimidate the continental opposition.
Kanga has since left to join Sparta Prague after head coach Vladan Milojević questioned his creative input, and Donald has fallen out of favour. The fact that mid-table and relegation-threatened RFPL sides employed a significant part of their squad is a sign of their relative quality. Second top goalscorer Richmond Boakye has so far remained at the club despite an unnamed Chinese club reportedly showing interest, but with question marks hanging over his future, attention will be heavily focussed on the Ghanaian striker’s shoulders.
CSKA have emerged from their routine training camp in Spain with an old face back in their ranks; Ahmed Musa, a league champion with the Armymen in 2015-16, has returned on loan. The side he finds is a different proposition from the one he left, but his experience and pace will be a vital asset to manager Viktor Goncharenko. His arrival has signalled the almost certain departure of new father Aaron Olanare, possibly to Amkar Perm, but the forward options remain extensive.
In some training matches, Vitinho and Musa have been paired up front, but with the likes of Konstantin Kuchaev and Fedor Chalov in the wings, it remains to see how much faith Goncharenko will place on young shoulders in what is one of the most important and challenging matches of the season. CSKA have even experimented with the bustling Swedish international Pontus Wernbloom leading the line earlier this season and saw instant dividends with four goals coming from the combustible midfield enforcer. It is possible he will be used in an advanced role again, if only for part of the match.
European football is critical to CSKA financially, and while they are all but guaranteed some form of continental action next season thanks to their eight-point gap down to nearest challengers Ufa – who lie just outside the final Europa League qualification place – what they need is Champions League football. League priorities will come into play soon enough, but thankfully for them, they face an easy run of domestic fixtures so can afford to gamble on this mammoth tie against Crvena Zvezda.
Crvena Zvezda vs CSKA Moscow – Players to Watch
Richmond Boakye #14 – Crvena Zvezda
The 25-year-old striker has a phenomenal scoring record this season, after having signed from little-known Italian outfit Latina Calcio last summer. It is no surprise that his name has been heavily linked to a move abroad, and his formative footballing years at Genoa and Juventus are a sign of the potential he possesses. Standing well over six foot tall, his physical frame is impressive, and his finishing is instinctive. He loves to hang off the shoulder of defenders and dart behind them to receive through-balls on the run, so a deep-lying defensive line might be most useful to nullify his threat.
Ahmed Musa #7 – CSKA Moscow
The Nigerian flyer is a welcome addition to the squad after returning temporarily from Leicester City in the English Premier League. Exactly how he will fit into the lineup is an intriguing question, as Tim Bogdachev raised on a recent Futbolgrad podcast. Goncharenko has employed a 3-5-2 formation for the majority of this season without traditional wingers, and although Musa did play centrally after Seydou Doumbia’s departure to AS Roma for half a season, it is not his natural role. Nevertheless, his counter-attacking threat will be critical to CSKA’s chances of snatching an away goal.
Crvena Zvezda vs CSKA Moscow – Match Stats
- This match will be Crvena Zvezda’s 15th UEFA match of the season, making it their longest European campaign ever.
- Crvena Zvezda are competing in their first knockout stage of a European competition in 26 years; then they were defending their crown as champions of Europe
- The Serbians scored just three goals to progress from their group, and haven’t conceded more than one goal in any of their last eight home European matches
- CSKA have won five of their last seven Europa League away games, and two of their last three Champions League away games
- The last time CSKA faced a Serbian side – Crvena Zvezda’s eternal rivals Partizan Belgrade in 2004-05 – they lifted the UEFA Cup (as the Europa League was known then)
Futbolgrad Network Prediction: Crvena Zvezda vs CSKA Moscow – 1-1
Crvena Zvezda vs CSKA Moscow – Possible Team Lineups
Borjan – Stojković, Savić, Le Tallec, Rodić – Srnić, Jovičić, Krstičić, Ben – Boakye, Pešić
Manager: Vladan Milojević
Akinfeev – Alexey Berezutskiy, Vasin, Vasiliy Berezutskiy – Fernandes, Dzagoev, Wernbloom, Golovin, Nababkin – Vitinho, Musa
Manager Viktor Goncharenko
Andrew Flint is an English freelance football writer living in Tyumen, Western Siberia, with his wife and two daughters. He has featured on These Football Times, Russian Football News, Four Four Two and Sovetski Sport, mostly focusing on full-length articles about derbies, youth development and the game in Russia. Due to his love for FC Tyumen, he is particularly interested in lower league Russian football and is looking to establish himself in time for the 2018 World Cup. Follow Andrew on Twitter @AndrewMijFlint.