Manchester United have made the long, tiresome journey east to face C.S.K.A. Moscow this evening, in the second game of this season’s Champions League Group A. Having comfortably seen off FC Basel 3-0 at Old Trafford in the opening Group fixture, United will look to cement their position at the head of the Group table with a good result in the Russian capital; however, Moscow is a tricky place to go to, both in terms of travel distance (for both the team and the fans), visa difficulties (for the fans) and often largely dangerous, unknown opposition on a temperamental playing surface.
C.S.K.A. Moscow have already shown they are not a team to take lightly, having impressively beaten Benfica 2-1 in Lisbon on Match Day 1, and they will be putting everything into getting a positive result against Jose Mourinho’s men in the knowledge that a good result would put them in a strong position in the Group before their double-header with Swiss Champions FC Basel.
I expect this to be the most difficult game United will play in this Group, given the distance, standard of opposition and possible weather conditions (though better to go to Moscow now rather than in December!) Given that UEFA incredulously had also scheduled our hated rivals Liverpool to play at Spartak Moscow last night (a game which finished in a 1-1 draw), there is definite potential for trouble off the pitch, both between rival traveling British fans and with Russian hooligans- let’s hope that doesn’t happen.
Here is my team selection for this game: (a fluid 4-2-3-1, which needs to be solid when without the ball)
GK: David de Gea – probably the most obvious ‘pick’ of the day. The news that the Club are seeking to extend David’s contract is sure to be welcomed everywhere except Madrid, and the Russians will do well to find a way past our Spanish stopper.
RB: Ashley Young – Sadly, Antonio Valencia has sustained an injury against Southampton and is unavailable so I’m bring Ashley Young in at right-back. Ashley’s athleticism will be invaluable, as this is undoubtedly a game where we will want to break quickly and try to catch C.S.K.A. on the break; he will hopefully get a few opportunities to exploit space down our right flank and send over some decent crosses. He’s not the best ‘defender’ around, though, and will need Juan Mata to track back and help out when we are under pressure.
LB: Daley Blind – Ashley Young has played well at left-back recently, including putting over a superb cross from which Lukaku scored the only goal of the game at Southampton on Saturday past, but he will be featuring on the right side this evening, so Blind comes in to left-back, bringing defensive solidity with him. I will have Luke Shaw and Matteo Darmian to bring in if we need a change at full-back positions.
CBs: Eric Bailly & Chris Smalling – Smalling comes in due to Phil Jones picking up a minor knock in the Southampton fixture which will keep him out of this game, but both of these lads are experienced enough to handle what C.S.K.A. Moscow can throw at them, and I’m sure they will get tested against the Russians, with Brazilian striker Vitinho having plenty of pace. Victor Lindelof hasn’t shown enough to warrant selection ahead of Smalling yet for such an important fixture.
DMs: Nemanja Matic & Ander Herrera – worrying news of injuries to Marouane Fellaini and Michael Carrick mean this pair are a ‘default’ selection in the defensive midfield positions, though quite honestly I expected them to be the first choice pairing in there before the season started, and only Fellaini’s outstanding form has prevented that being the case. They will need to keep a close eye on the dangerous Alan Dzagoev, who is certainly the most well-known threat for both his club and the Russian national side as well. Herrera could do with putting in a good performance to put himself into contention for a regular starting shirt whenever Fellaini makes a return to fitness.
RM: Juan Mata – the little man’s talent and industry will be invaluable as United seek to create chances to grab a valuable goal or two in Moscow.
AM(C): Henrikh Mkhitaryan – the Armenian put in another somewhat frustrating display at St. Mary’s, drifting in and out of the game, as he is wont to do. We could really do with Henrikh dominating the centre of the park this evening, though I think he has felt the absence of Paul Pogba more than most, and this will be a challenging test of his capabilities to impose himself on a game.
LM: Marcus Rashford – again, Marcus could easily be swapped with Anthony Martial without any problem to the overall shape of the team, and indeed Jose may decide to do just that, with Rashford having played at Southampton. His growing reputation across Europe will have put fear into the Russian full-backs, and we will need Marcus to demonstrate that the reports of his frightening pace and trickery on the ball are not a myth. He showed he isn’t bad with free-kicks at St. Mary’s either, having placed an effort narrowly wide with Fraser Forster a mere spectator.
CF: Romelu Lukaku – the big man can’t stop scoring, though he will come up against a different challenge in Moscow against very experienced European campaigners like Sergei Ignashevich and Aleksei Berezutski. The huge advantage he should have over these type of centre-backs is sheer pace, and if we can get him running onto through balls in the space behind them, then you’d back the Belgian to extend his goalscoring record, though experienced Russian International keeper Igor Akinfeev will not make himself easy to beat.
BENCH: Romero, Martial, Lingard, McTominay, Darmian, Lindelof, Shaw.
This will be a difficult assignment for the Red Devils, but our quality should be higher than the Russian team can offer, with their mixture of experience and youthful endeavour. Eastern European sides are notoriously unpredictable and I’d be happy enough to return to Manchester with a point, though we are certainly more than capable of winning all three on offer. The ankle injury to Marouane Fellaini is a blow as this is the sort of match his qualities as a battling ‘nuisance’ would have been ideal in, but little Ander Herrera is a superb player who loves the Club, and I have no doubting his ability to do a job for us this evening. However, the physical presence of Fellaini and Pogba will be missed, particularly at set-pieces. Likewise, losing a supreme athlete like Tony Valencia is unsettling to the rhythm of the side. Lukaku will be a handful for the Russians, and we need to make sure he is fully involved in the action as much as possible.