CSKA And Zenit Learn Their Champions League Fate

Luis Figo, Dmitri Alenichev and Davor Suker cut tape during opening ceremony of the UEFA Champions League Trophy Tour 2011 in Moscow, Russia. (Photo by Dmitry Korotayev/Epsilon/Getty Images)

Eastern European expert Eliot Rothwell takes a look at the Champions League draw through the prism of the Russian clubs, highlighting problems at Zenit.

Slutskiy had wanted it, Spalletti had wanted reinforcements. Slutskiy got it. As for Spalletti it seems everyone, even he himself, is still waiting. January will be a crucial period in both Moscow and St. Petersburg and for equally different reasons. 

What Leonid Slutskiy, CSKA Moscow's under pressure manager, had wanted all along - so he says - is to test his slightly imbalanced squad against his friend Jose Mourinho and the might of Real Madrid. The last time Slutskiy and Mourinho met, whilst the Portuguese manager was at the Inter Milan helm, CSKA's boss had been gifted with a bottle of wine and an engaging conversation. It seems that Slutskiy has remembered Mourinho's gesture of goodwill and now wants to return the favour in slightly different fashion, by rolling up to the Santiago Bernabeu, wine in hand, and pushing Real Madrid off the edge of glory and down the vertical chasm to Champions League elimination. Obviously and unfortunately it won't be that easy. 

After the draw Russian sports news provider Sports.ru raised itself from the trepidation of drawing the second best team in the world and threw out an interesting fact. CSKA have, up to this point, never lost a competitive European fixture against a Spanish side. And whilst that trumpet of wisdom is almost definitely irrelevant to the two matches in February, it no doubt has a modicum of interest - just like Paul Breitner's increasingly fox-like appearance. More interesting, however, is CSKA and Russia defender Sergei Ignashevich's pre-draw assertion that the team he most feared is Bayern Munich, for reasons entirely unknown to anyone who has seen Barcelona and Real Madrid sweep through opponents this year.

But hopes of shackling the explosiveness of Ronaldo, Ozil, Higuain and the rest of the white-shirted motley crew may come in the form of three aspects of the CSKA experience. The first, the continued form of the excellent Seydou Doumbia, combined with the irregular but no less fantastical ability of Alan Dzagoev, the second being the performance in Milan that saw CSKA beat off competition from Lille and Trabzonspor to shuttle ahead into the knockout phases and the third, seemingly stressed more in England than anwywhere else, coming in the shape of the Russian winter. Russia's domestic season, in a transitionary phase this year, won't awaken from the slumber of the winter break until March 3rd, meaning that Real Madrid's trip to Moscow will fall right in the heart of the period that the Russian Football Union deems too cold for domestic football. To compound the toe freezing misery, yesterday the Russian Premier League's President Sergei Pryadkin said some games could, in theory, be played indoors, highlighting the state of the arctic chill that sweeps through the Russian capital. 

As for table-topping Zenit they were, at least according to Russian newspaper Sovestky Sport, 'luckier' than their domestic counterparts in drawing Portugal's Benfica. And with celebrated former USSR coach Antoly Byshovets reckoning with the same paper that the two Russian sides can beat anyone with the exceptions of the two halves of El Clasico, Spalletti will remain optimistic after this morning's corporate frenzy in Nyon.

Zenit, however, look something of a club in crisis of sorts coming up to christmas. Manager Luciano Spalletti and the board, headed by President Aleksandr Dyukov, appear to have reservations with the way each party wants to move the St Petersburg club forward. Spalletti, as many managers would, argues that more investment is needed, citing the ageing midfield and the inadequate cover offered at the peak and the base of the team. Spalletti's comments this week that 'we [Zenit] have reached a ceiling, and we need to change something' reportedly came after he issued Dyukov with an ultimatum regarding player acquisition, but with a meeting scheduled in Moscow next week between the manager and the boardroom, Zenit may have solved any internal friction before the two-legged affair with Benfica comes along. 

So Russia's premier European conquistadors both sit at different levels of health in the run up to the possibly season defining first knockout phase. CSKA fared the worse out of the two in terms of the draw, however, look increasingly optimistic that the heady challenge of Real Madrid may just be what they need. Zenit, meanwhile, locked in internal conflict and boardroom wrangling still retain their cling on the summit of Russian football and the more favourable draw. As the frost descends on both Moscow and St Petersburg the two clubs must quickly shake off any possible winter break rust if they are to, in CSKA's case, march and, in Zenit's, sail through to the next round. 

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