Viktoria Plzen vs CSKA Moscow – Wednesday, September 19, 20:00 BST/21:00 CEST – Štruncovy Sady Stadion – Plzen, Czech Republic
Despite having a 107-year history, Viktoria Plzen’s success has been largely limited to the last decade or so. They earned their first league title in 2011, and since then have been a fixture in European competition without ever threatening a great deal. Before that date, they had never finished higher than fifth since the Czech Republic was formed as an independent nation, and had embarked on just one European campaign; even that was by default, after the Czechoslovakian Cup winners were also league champions, allowing runners-up Plzen to enter the 1970-71 Cup Winners’ Cup.
Guiding them this time around – and not in his first spell – is former Czech Republic national team manager Pavel Vrba. The squat Czech also spent time managing in Russia with Anzhi two seasons ago, although even then it was a totally different atmosphere around the Dagestani club for him to develop any meaningful insight into the Russian domestic game. His six-month tenure was hampered by messy off-field management and he soon departed.
Whether he has a point to prove or not is largely irrelevant. With a suffocatingly difficult group, Plzen face arguably their most important fixture on day one. Fail to take a full three points tonight, and there is next to no chance at all of continuing in Europe, even via the Europa League escape route from Champions League groups.
Quite how Viktor Goncharenko has managed to knit together so many inexperienced characters and still keep them high up the table is a mystery. It was assumed that once Pontus Wernbloom, Bibras Natkho and Aleksandr Golovin had all left, the team would collapse. Blooding more youngsters over the last 18 months, however, has paid enormous dividends. Fedor Chalov, for example, is the Russian Premier League top goalscorer with twice as many as his next rival.
There is a crackle of electricity about this side. Seven goals in their last two league matches scored without reply have boosted the confidence, but the real meat is in Europe where they have improved marginally. Beating Benfica away was a complete shock result for CSKA last season, perhaps as much in light of their record of struggling to advance from a group in the Champions League in the last six attempts.
As domestic rivals Lokomotiv Moscow and even Spartak Moscow struggle to fire on all cylinders, the pressure is less than it was in the league itself last season. With last year’s winners, Real Madrid, and semi-finalists, AS Roma, in the group, the expectations are very low when it comes to the Champions League specifically. Goncharenko effectively has a free pass this continental campaign, thanks to the impossibility of progression and the gutted squad he finds himself with. Win, and he’s a hero. Lose, and he can point at the extreme youth in his side.
Viktoria Plzen vs CSKA Moscow – Players to Watch
Michael Krmencik #15 – Viktoria Plzen
The route to the top of Czech football has not been a smooth one for Krmencik; five loan spells by the age of 22 meant he has rarely been able to settle in one place to build a career until he returned home to his childhood club for good less than three years ago. He is a nightmare to mark, given his tendency to hang off the shoulder of defenders, his 1m90 frame and a fearless attitude. Equally adept at holding the ball up with his back to goal or using his sound instinct for goal facing it, Krmencik will relish the battle against a young, inexperienced back line.
Nikola Vlasic #8 – CSKA Moscow
Everton’s on-loan midfielder has ended up, almost by default, as the senior creative talent in a hugely-reshuffled midfield. Amidst a whole host of injuries plaguing an already stretched squad, the Croatian offers a rare spark of invention that will be essential in a game CSKA must target to have any hope of progressing to the Europa League escape route. His sumptuous assist for Timur Zhemaletdinov at the weekend was an example of the vision he can offer; with pace outside him, his range of passing will be called upon.
Viktoria Plzen vs CSKA Moscow – Match Stats
- Viktoria Plzen have faced CSKA Moscow twice before, winning the home game 2-1 five years ago in what was their only ever home win in the group stages
- This is Plzen’s first group stage appearance in the Champions League for five years, but it is CSKA’s sixth consecutive appearance at this stage
- They have won their last six European home games
- CSKA Moscow are embarking on a record-equalling 12th Champions League campaign – no other Russian club has reached more
- They have won five of their last eight European away matches
- Plzen captain Roman Hubnik was an FK Moskva teammate of Kirill Nababkin’s a decade ago
Futbolgrad Network Prediction: Viktoria Plzen vs CSKA Moscow – 1-1
Viktoria Plzen vs CSKA Moscow – Possible Lineups
Kozacik – Reznik, Pernica, Hubnik, Limbersky – Hrosovsky, Horava – Petrzela, Cermak, Kopic,- Krmencik
Manager: Pavel Vrba
Akinfeev – Fernandes, Becao, Chernov, Nababkin – Efremov, Bijol, Zhamaletdinov, Oblyakov, Vlasic – Chalov
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.