A mild Moscow is the stage for the second match of Espanyol’s Europa League campaign against 13-time Russian champions CSKA Moscow. Let’s take a closer look at the opponents.
The coach: Viktor Goncharenko
The man from Khoiniki, in modern-day Belarus, was handed the unenviable task of filling Leonid Slutsky’s sizeable shoes in 2016. Under Sklutsky, CSKA had won three of the previous four league titles to become the dominant force in Russia. It has not been all smooth sailing for the former BATE Borisov coach, with his new club finishing second to city rivals Spartak and Lokomotiv respectively in his first two seasons in charge.
Then, in summer 2018, the World Cup came to Russia and with it something of a revolution in terms of playing staff at CSKA. Club legends Sergei Ignashevich and the Berezutski twins, Aleksei and Vasili, all retired, with senior players such as Bibras Natcho and Vitinho also being sold on. Alexander Golovin had transformed into the star of the Russian national team during the competition, and the time was ripe for a €30m sale to Monaco. In their place, the club brought in youth. Russians Ivan Oblyakov and Ilzat Akhmetov were joined in the arrival lounge by the Icelandic pair of Arnor Sigurdsson and Hordur Magnusson, with the Croatian Nikola Vlasic also coming in ,initially on loan, from Everton.
What better man to lead the youthful revolution than Goncharenko, the man who took BATE Borisov to the Champions League group stages for the first time in 2008, aged only 31? Last season, however, turned out to be a transitional one, with CSKA slumping to a fourth place finish in the league as Zenit took the title back to St Petersburg. The European challenge also ended early and in unusual fashion: two victories over Real Madrid were not enough to prevent them finishing bottom of their group and crashing out of the Champions League.
Patience was the watchword over the summer, and the CSKA hierarchy have been rewarded with a positive start to the current season. The club sit top of a crowded Premier Liga with eight victories from 11 games, with the 5-1 thrashing they received away to Ludogorets in their opening Europa League game looking like a bit of an aberration.
With Espanyol also disappointed in drawing at home to Ferencváros, it means that the onus is on both sides to kickstart their campaigns this evening.
Goncharenko’s preferred formation is a 3-4-3, and after unsuccessfully shuffling the pack against Ludogorets three weeks ago, he is likely to revert to his undisputed first-choice XI here. Alan Dzagoev and Georgi Schennikov are long-term absentees through injury.
Igor Akinfeev is the veteran and father-figure of a squad with an average age of under 24. Akinfeev played in the 2005 UEFA Cup final win against Sporting Lisbon, CSKA’s sole European triumph. That final may be a distant memory, and Akinfeev may have since set the unfortunate record for most consecutive Champions League games without keeping a clean sheet (43 matches over 11 years until 2017), but having spent his entire career at the club and represented Russia in 111 official matches, he is a true club and national hero.
Mario Fernandes is a traditional buccaneering Brazilian right-wing-back, except for the fact that he is Russian. Having joined CSKA in 2012, his gained citizenship in 2017, meaning he was eligible to play in the World Cup. It was a no-brainer for Russia and he was instrumental in the hosts’ run to the quarter-finals, beating Spain along the way before going out on penalties to Croatia. His overlapping runs will cause problems for an Espanyol back line lacking in confidence, and he is also an aerial threat from set pieces.
Nikola Vlasic endured a torrid time at Everton after joining from Hajduk Split in 2017. One season under Sam Allardyce is enough for even the strongest of characters and he was offloaded to CSKA a year later. After impressing on loan, his move was made permanent for €20m and, at 21, he has got his career firmly back on track. More than anyone else he has been tasked with replacing the creativity and goals of Golovin in this side. His considerable success has meant that he has carved out a place for himself in an extremely talented Croatian side also boasting Perisic, Rebic, Modric, Rakitic and Kovacic in similar positions.
Amid all the new arrivals, Fedor Chalov has been a homegrown revelation, scoring 15 goals to finish as top scorer in the league last season. He made his international debut in March, although he has to compete with Dzyuba and Smolov for a spot in Cherchesov’s Russia side. The 21-year old is the kind of poacher that could cause havoc against any of Espanyol’s unconvincing centre-back pairings.
Espanyol team news
Naldo (“precaution”) and Bernardo have been left out of the squad, with David López, Lluís López, Corchia, Víctor Gómez and Campuzano all included.
As we’ve said before, second-guessing Gallego is a thankless task, but the sheer volume of full-backs included does suggest that he may double up in this regard, perhaps on both flanks. We are excited to see Víctor Gómez joining up with the first-team squad for the first time, and he could compete with the returning Corchia for a place on the right wing. It is worth remembering that Lozano, Granero, Melendo and Wu Lei all started against Ferencváros, but rotation to such an extent this time round would be a huge risk given the increasingly precarious position Gallego finds himself in.
Espanyol have won one of their last eight matches in all competitions, while CSKA have only failed to win one of their last six. But football, as they say, is a funny old game. ¡Vamos Espanyol!