By Andrew Wychrij
Not so long ago everything seemed so perfect for CSKA Moscow.
The Army Men had embarked upon the 2013-14 campaign with an air of apparent invincibility, beginning the defence of their league and cup titles with a resounding 3-0 win over Zenit in the Russian Super Cup, before adding to that success with six wins from their opening eight league games.
Leonid Slutsky’s men asserted themselves as the clear frontrunners in the Russian top flight and then turned their attention towards Europe. The Champions League awaited: a competition that remains an untamed frontier for CSKA to master, with Bayern Munich the first test in Group D’s opening round of fixtures.
Six games on from the clash with Bayern - a comfortable 3-0 win for the defending champions - the outlook could not be more different. CSKA have endured a catastrophic downward spiral since meeting Bayern, suffering four damaging Russian Premier League defeats, which leaves them languishing in sixth, 11 points behind league leaders Zenit.
Indeed, Friday’s 2-0 loss to the St Petersburg outfit means CSKA have not scored a league goal since September 14, while they have conceded nine in the same period. They now look utterly devoid of form and confidence, and their coach has a genuine crisis on his hands.
So, what has brought about such a dip in the Army Men’s fortunes?
“There is a complex mix of reasons,” Slutsky told journalists when asked that very question after the Zenit loss.
“It would take me a long time to go through them.”
Though Slutsky appears reluctant to articulate them, there are indeed a few explanations for CSKA’s recent collapse. A particular issue, however, seems to be the number of key players being simultaneously sidelined through injury, most notably Alan Dzagoev and Seydou Doumbia.
It is in attack that CSKA have been especially found wanting of late and the absence of that duo is a vital factor in explaining that inadequacy. Both players have missed a large chunk of the season, including almost the entirety of the recent run of one win in the last seven - with Doumbia only making his return from a hip injury in the second half against Zenit.
The void left by the departure of Vagner Love to Chinese side Shandong Luneng last summer has also left CSKA's forward line looking light. Doumbia also missed the bulk of last season with a herniated disc but when he plays, he is a constant threat. Despite barely featuring this campaign, the Ivorian has scored four league goals, a third of his side’s total. His pace, power and physicality have been missed by his team, robbing them of a clinical edge in front of goal.
Perhaps Dzagoev has been an even bigger loss. The 23-year-old is capable of shouldering CSKA’s creative burden as well as scoring regularly, contributing seven goals and nine assists in the league last term. He’s a talent that the Moscow club would always be expected to struggle without.
However, to suggest that the return of these two would herald an automatic return to winning ways is naive. If anything, their enforced absences - as well as injury to Rasmus Elm in midfield - has highlighted the fact that CSKA do not have the depth to cope with major losses to personnel.
Ahmed Musa, who spurned a number of chances against Zenit, does not possess the ruthlessness in front of goal to lead the line by himself at present, while Keisuke Honda appears distracted by talk of a move to AC Milan. As for the rest of the attacking force, 20-year-old Vitinho needs time to settle after his summer arrival from Botafogo, while Zoran Tosic has been broadly ineffective.
When you then begin to consider the defence, with Alexei Berezustkiy prone to errors and the 34-year-old Sergei Ignashevich looking his age, noticeably less agile and robust than last season, the problem begins to look more obvious. Indeed, the Russian media have claimed that even their talismanic captain and keeper Igor Akinfeev may be nearing the exit, with his contract set to expire in the summer and talks on a new deal said to be stalling.
It is evident that CSKA do not have the most star-studded, lavishly assembled squad in Russia but last year Slutsky was able to fashion them into a tight unit. It seems that this time around too many essential pieces are missing for him to repeat the trick and they could do without facing a team of City's quality this week.
“City, in general, are a team with no weaknesses,” was Elm’s assessment of CSKA’s opponents for the club’s official site.
“But that does not mean they are invincible. And I'm sure that if all goes well we can ensure a positive outcome.”
Bullish though that may be, the evidence suggests that European football has come as an unwelcome distraction for the Muscovites, stretching the squad beyond its limits.
CSKA did not get beyond the Europa league play-offs last season, falling to a 2-1 aggregate defeat against AIK. This seems to have actually done them a favour, with the ability to focus solely on domestic competitions evidently bearing fruit.
Manuel Pellegrini has claimed that the back-to-back games between CSKA and City will likely decide who progresses to the knockout stages alongside Bayern. If that is the case, it must surely be the Citizens who will enter the last 16. City have a squad capable of handling the rigours of fighting for trophies on multiple fronts and after their 3-1 win against West Ham, good form to rely on. CSKA have neither.
The stormy weather that has battered the Arena Khimiki in recent weeks has almost perfectly reflected the darkening mood of CSKA and their fans. Moscow is seldom an easy place for a side to visit but City ought to claim an easy victory - and, strangely, that may be the result both sides need.
A Champions League exit could be the tonic the Army Men need to regroup and get their faltering season back on track. It is already time for CSKA to forget about Europe, the challenge of reasserting their domestic dominance is a far more pressing concern.