Manchester United will go in search of their first points on the road in this season’s Champions League group stage when visiting CSKA Moscow on Wednesday. Louis van Gaal’s side slipped up in their first outing away from home when going down 2-1 to PSV Eindhoven on a miserable night in the Netherlands that also saw Luke Shaw suffer a serious leg injury.
But they bounced back from that loss to beat Wolfsburg at Old Trafford three weeks ago to leave all four sides in Group B level on three points going into United’s double-header with the Russian side. United also rebounded from disappointment in the Premier League on Saturday. Having been soundly beaten 3-0 by Arsenal before the recent international break, United eased past Everton by the same scoreline at Goodison Park.
It was a contest in which Van Gaal made some notable changes to his lineup. And after they paid handsome dividends, he must now surely be tempted to keep them in place when they travel to the Russian capital.
At the back, Phil Jones made his first start of the season and, in place of Daley Blind, added extra physicality alongside the continually impressive Chris Smalling. Further forward, meanwhile, Ander Herrera has excelled in the advanced midfield role, prompting questions as to why he is not a regular on the team sheet. Adding dynamism and creativity, the Spaniard grabbed a goal and an assist on Merseyside.
But his inclusion in the side meant a shift up front, where Anthony Martial, despite the superb goal-scoring start to his Manchester United career, was switched to the left and captain Wayne Rooney moved into the central striker role. Rooney got his team’s third goal and again received lavish praise from his manager, yet the quest to get England’s record goalscorer fully firing, which has often come at the expense of the side’s fluidity, goes on.
The setup on Saturday also offered no room for Memphis Depay. The exciting Dutch winger was crucial in getting United through the Champions League playoffs against Club Brugge and also got their goal in Eindhoven, yet his impact has been all too sporadic so far. Van Gaal’s distaste for mercurial individual talents is well established, and was emphasized again in the last few days when he compared Memphis to the now departed Ángel di María and Radamel Falcao. From a man with Van Gaal’s obstinacy, it was a stark warning that the 21-year-old must quickly improve.
His more impressive showings in Europe may see him get another chance on Wednesday. If he does he could well come up against a winger who has already experienced being cast adrift from Old Trafford. It’s almost seven years since Zoran Tošić moved to Manchester United as a highly rated talent from Serbia. But he would play just 78 minutes in the first team for the Premier League giants before being allowed to join CSKA on a permanent deal in the summer of 2010.
He has been a consistent contributor since then, and the now 28-year-old played an important role in CSKA’s 3-2 victory over PSV Eindhoven three weeks ago to bolster their hopes of making the last 16 for the first time in four seasons. CSKA already had to overcome two qualifying rounds just to make it this far, including edging past Portuguese side Sporting Lisbon. Indeed, it has been a strong start to the season overall for coach Leonid Slutsky, who has guided CSKA to top spot in the Russian Premier League after going unbeaten for the first 12 matches. He has also secured Russia’s qualification for Euro 2016 after being appointed to succeed Fabio Capello in August, while remaining in charge of CSKA.
CSKA Moscow: Slutsky’s only absentee is midfielder Bibras Natkho, who is recovering from a concussion.
Manchester United: Ashley Young, Luke Shaw and Paddy McNair remain sidelined, but Antonio Valencia and Sergio Romero have returned to the squad.
Prediction: Manchester City found out that CSKA are not to be underestimated, when taking just one point off the Moscow side in last season’s group phase. With a meeting at Old Trafford to come in two weeks’ time, United could well be more than happy to settle for a point in at the Arena Khimiki, where CSKA have yet to taste defeat this season. To get that they will have to avoid the kind of lapse they displayed in Eindhoven, which, with a more solid look about the side at Everton, should be achievable.
Prediction: CSKA Moscow 1-1 Manchester United