At no point during 2011 have CSKA Moscow looked truly poor, but they've underachieved for what seems like the entire season. Though it would be easy to blame injuries, they have a deep enough squad to remain competitive with just about any team in the world no matter what kind of injury troubles they encounter.
The good news for CSKA is that this edition of the Russian Premier League is an odd one. Because Russia won the bidding to host the 2018 World Cup, they are changing their league to run on the normal European calendar, as opposed to their current league schedule which runs through the summer due to the harsh winters in Russia. To accomplish this, the 2011-12 Russian Premier League season is being played over 18 months. The league is currently in its first phase, where each team plays each other home and away. In the second phase, the top eight teams will play each other home and away to decide the championship, while the bottom eight will do the same in a separate group to determine the relegation places.
With two rounds remaining in the first stage, CSKA sits in second place, two points behind Zenit St. Petersburg. Had this been normal 30-round season, they'd have no one to blame but themselves for their current position. On August 6, CSKA were thoroughly outplayed at their home stadium against Zenit, who defeated them 2-0 on goals by Alexander Kerzhakov and Aleksandr Aniukov. Just over a month later, again at home, CSKA were crushed 4-0 by Dinamo Moscow, put to the sword by Andriy Voronin and Kevin Kuranyi. With Champions League looming, the result was a startling wake-up call for manager Leonid Slutsky.
The Champions League didn't treat CSKA kindly to start, but it was obvious that something was changing. Seydou Doumbia snatched a point at the death for his side away to Lille on the first match day, a result which was followed by a 3-2 loss to Inter Milan at home. Mauro Zarate snatched a winner, but CSKA's play was encouraging.
CSKA gave up a shocking draw to Terek Grozny on October 15, but their forwards bagged a goal each and the team was without Vasili Berezutsky. Doumbia, Vagner Love, and Alan Dzagoev were obviously getting hot. The defense just needed to sort themselves out.
Against Trabzonspor in the UEFA Champions League, they did. CSKA put in a fantastic performance against their Turkish visitors, winning 3-0. But it wasn't just the points and the scoreline that was impressive, encouraging and telling of the emergence of a sleeping giant. It was the way they scored.
The first goal was created on a backheel by Love into the path of Doumbia, who finished emphatically. The second was scored by substitute Aleksandrs Cauna, volleying in a cross from Love. The third was another goal by Doumbia, who finished off a through ball from Dzagoev.
In CSKA's 5-3 win over Anzhi Makhachkala, the front three got together again. The score makes the game look closer than it was; CSKA dominated for almost the entirety of the match. Samuel Eto'o scored on a rebound early in the game, tapping in a mis-handled ball by backup goalkeeper Sergei Zhemchugov, but it would be all CSKA from there. They scored the next five in a row. The last two goals, scored by Jan Holenda, came in the final 10 minutes after CSKA had understandably checked out.
At least one of Love, Dzagoev and Doumbia was involved in every goal. All came from open play, and all were very much with the run of play. At least two of the three attacking stars were directly involved in the creation of four of the five goals. Doumbia scored two with Love and Dzagoev scoring a goal each. One of the five goals was credited as an own goal.
Goal No. 1 came on a Love feed to Dzagoev, who crossed onto the head of the finisher Doumbia. No. 2 was also scored by Doumbia, finishing from close range after a Love through ball. The third goal came on a magnificent assist by Dzagoev, who dribbled through four defenders before hitting a through ball to Love, who scored. Dzagoev provided the through ball again, this time to Doumbia for goal No. 4. The Ivorian international caused the goal, but Anzhi defender Ali Gadzhibekov deflected it in. Dzagoev got one of his own for No. 5, brilliantly chesting down and volleying a long ball from Pavel Mamaev.
For those not keeping track, Dzagoev, Doumbia and Love have been directly involved in five goals each over the last two games. Six of CSKA's eight goals in those two games involved two of those players directly involved in the build-up. Their chemistry right now is spectacular.
And the most amazing thing about this sudden resurgence of form? They're doing it without a number of their best players. Goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev, fullback/defensive winger Chidi Odiah, attacking winger Mark Gonzalez, versatile attacker Keisuke Honda and striker Thomas Necid are all out injured. Akinfeev and Odiah, in particular, will step right back into the lineup when they return and improve the team significantly. The latter three players will be hard pressed to find starting places due to the form of their teammates, but they will provide a serious upgrade in depth.
CSKA now sit second in their Champions League group, with a visit to Trabzon looming in the next round. They can't expect to get points out of a trip to the San Siro to face Inter Milan, but they will expect victory at home in cold weather against Lille. Between their current standing, schedule and form, CSKA are favorites for the Champions League knockout stages.
The Russian Premier League is a similar story. Luciano Spalletti's Zenit will still be the favorite in the second stage in the eyes of most, while the Anzhi side they defeated on Sunday are sure to make things interesting with their spending. However, Zenit's core is undoubtedly aging, while the rules of the Russian Premier League limit what the millions of Suleyman Kerimov can do in one year. CSKA is young, deep, building chemistry, and they're finally realizing their potential.
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