Andrew Flint –
CSKA Moscow vs Espanyol – Thursday, October 3, 17:55 BST/18:55 CET – VEB Arena, Moscow – Russia
One thing is for certain, life with CSKA Moscow is never dull. Eighteen goals in their last four competitive matches, an injury crisis forcing a first-team debut for 17-year-old Vadim Karpov, a five-goal thriller against Krasnodar to assert their domestic dominance after a catastrophic second-half collapse to see Ludogorets hammer them 5-1. The very nature of group-stage football means that one slip-up against arguably the weakest side in the group leaves all the pressure on Viktor Goncharenko’s young charges. Pressure, though, is usually what brings out the best in them. In front of a packed Luzhniki Stadium this time last year they out-fought and out-thought the then-reigning European Champions Real Madrid. While others around them have slightly stumbled, they have risen to the top of the Russian Premier League as things stand today.
If there is a minor area for concern, it is with striker Fedor Chalov. Over the summer he was the understandable subject of serious interest from abroad with transfer bids of 25 million mooted from Crystal Palace. His stock had risen exponentially after finishing last season as the Russian Premier League’s top goalscorer and it was expected that he would carry that direct form into this season and earn a call-up to the full national team.
Neither has really happened though; he has slowly edged his way into the goal charts, but his recent missed penalty in Ekaterinburg typified the missed opportunities he has endured. It is harsh to blame him for the lack of senior recognition for his country given the very set path Stanislav Cherchesov has laid out with one much more imposing single target man up front. It will still play on his mind though as he watched fellow youngster Aleksandr Sobolev race ahead for a far less capable side.
While one struggles – and it must be stressed that the term is used relative to his immense potential – others pick up the baton. A few months ago it would have seemed hard to believe that Kristijan Bostrovic or Jaka Bijol would have real trouble reclaiming their places in the starting XI, and yet when they have come in they’ve offered an imposing platform in the middle. Not that the players or staff will care – nor should they – but there is another tangential responsibility that hangs on their performances; the UEFA coefficient rankings. With Spartak failing so dismally to reach the group stages it has left Russia with only four representatives in European competition. If Portuguese clubs are allowed to catch up, Russia will lose a place in Europe.
Espanyol will have to accept their place in the domestic and continental scene; they scraped into this competition on head-to-head record for only their first appearance in well over a decade. Teams will fall and others will rise, and it is true that the potential investment from their Chinese owners may increase, but to rise above the traditional powerhouses of Real Madrid, Barcelona and Atletico Madrid as well as Sevilla, Valencia and even likes of Getafe and Real Sociedad is a tall order. This campaign may well be their last appearance for some time unless their fortunes change drastically.
A 1-1 draw at home to Ferencvaros has placed a similar level of pressure on them as CSKA’s awful thrashing to Ludogorets did for the Russians. Two journeys to Eastern Europe to follow after this visit to Moscow will become even more daunting if they fail to come away with a win. At some point though, they will have to decide whether to prioritise survival or European glory. They have failed to win in their last four matches and sit in the relegation zone on La Liga. Hopes or dreams of returning to the Europa League might be premature; a return to Spain’s top flight itself might the plan instead before too long.
CSKA Moscow vs Espanyol – Players to Watch
Ivan Oblyakov #98 – CSKA Moscow
One of the main reasons that Viktor Goncharenko was able to survive the seemingly catastrophic departure of the spine of his team just over a year ago was the strength of the club’s recruitment. Ivan Oblyakov was already known by Goncharenko from his time as Ufa manager but he was still only 20 years old when he made the big step up to the capital. The speed with which he has not only settled into playing a key role in the midfield of a club who won this competition just over 14 years ago, but also adapted to different positions, is a testament to his maturity. Oblyakov takes most set pieces now with his cultured left foot while also setting the pace for counter attacks with his calm passing. Although he rarely takes the limelight CSKA’s threat can invariably be traced back to him.
Wu Lei #7 – Espanyol
It is probably fair to say China’s aggressive incursions into European football have met with mixed success. Ledman’s sponsorship of Portugal’s second tier began in 2016 with a demand that all teams feature Chinese players, but the initial wave of influence has dropped to the stage where there are only four Chinese players still in the league who have totalled less than 200 minutes combined. Internazionale on the other hand are being backed lavishly and sit top of Serie A. Another that has gone slightly more under the radar is Rastar Group’s purchase of Barcelona’s second club, Espanyol, and their marquee signing of forward Wu Lei. The Chinese international forward has managed to make a more positive impression on the pitch despite only scoring four goals in 29 appearances. He broke records in his homeland by becoming the Chinese Super League’s youngest ever player at just 14 years of age; he is unlikely to break similarly shattering records just yet in La Liga, but his speed of thought and ball skill make him a danger.
CSKA Moscow vs Espanyol – Match Stats
- CSKA Moscow have never lost to Spanish opposition at home (W2, D3), with this fixture coming almost exactly one year after arguably their most impressive result when they beat the reigning European champions Real Madrid 1-0
- They have won just one of their last six home games in the Europa League (D2, L3)
- CSKA have lost just one competitive game at home since last November
- Espanyol are making their first appearance in the Europa League/UEFA Cup since they made the final 13 years ago
- The Catalan side are unbeaten in their last 21 UEFA matches against non-Spanish sides, including their last 10 away from home
- Brazilian centre-back Naldo has previous experience of playing in Russia when he turned out for Krasnodar three seasons ago
Futbolgrad Network Prediction: CSKA Moscow vs Espanyol – 3-0
CSKA Moscow vs Espanyol – Possible lineups
Akinfeev – Diveev, Magnusson, Sarlija – Fernandes, Akhmetov, Oblyakov, Kuchaev – Sigurdsson, Vlašić – Chalov
Manager: Viktor Goncharenko
Diego López – Javi López, Calero, Naldo, Vilà – Lei Wu, Roca, Darder, Vargas – Sánchez – Calleri
Manager: David Gallego
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.