Manchester City can make history Tuesday night when they host CSKA Moscow in a critical Champions League match at the Etihad. Never before have the Sky Blues made it out of the group stages of Europe’s grandest competition, but a win here would almost certainly clinch a berth in the round of 16.
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To be right, City do need a bit of help from Bayern, who are away at minnows Plzen. But few believe the Czechs – thrashed 5-0 last time by the reigning champs – can spring the upset, meaning the ball is almost entirely in Manuel Pellegrini’s court. City are the favorites, particularly as they are riding high after a 7-0 mauling of Norwich in the league this week, but CSKA gave City a fright last time out in Moscow, nicking an early lead before Kun Aguero saved the day.
City and CSKA are both enduring somewhat uninspiring league runs, with Russia’s reigning champions coming into the match on the back of a 2-1 comeback win over Volga that has them fourth in the table but a full nine points off the top. City are a bit better, having improved to fifth this weekend, but their depth is as unquestionable as their firepower: the Sky Blues have five of the Prem’s top scorers to call upon at any given time. And City also have a bit of history at their backs, as the Russians have never won on English soil.
Keisuke Honda (right) proved he’s a handful in City’s first meeting vs. CSKA. (Photo: Epsilon/Getty Images)
That should not obscure CSKA’s quality. Playmaker Keisuke Honda, forward Seydou Doumbia and keeper Igor Akinfeev are all experienced and steady hands, capable of influencing and changing the game. In their first meeting this year, played on the slop at the Khimki, former United hand Zoran Tosic proved that with a fine lob to snatch the lead just past the half-hour mark off service from Honda. The goal underscored City’s main flaw: Despite the fact that they can score more goals than just about anyone, they have been very lazy about preventing goals at the other end.
That’s a major reason why, to no one’s surprise, Joe Hart has been dropped by Pellegrini for the match in favor of Costel Pantilimon in the nets. The England number one has been dogged by repeated mistakes and was correctly blamed for the loss against Chelsea. He was benched Saturday as well, looking on glumly as Pantilimon enjoyed football’s equivalent of a day off between the pipes. While Pellegrini claimed that Hart was the first man off the pine to congratulate Pantilimon Saturday, people here are deeply concerned how Hart’s stumbles will affect him long-term, particularly as England gears up for the World Cup in Brazil.
Another man who will not figure is Vincent Kompany, out with a nagging thigh injury. Pellegrini was forced Monday to deny that the Belgian skipper will need surgery to correct the problem, but the central defender will not return until after the international break at earliest.
Kompany’s absence has been adequately covered up to date, but it is a fact that with him in the lineup, City look a far more organized and solid side. Javi Garcia – the man Honda beat the ball last time out to set up CSKA’s goal – is not the answer, and Martin Demichelis, both an old hand and, in footballing terms, an old man, is still adjusting to the pace of the English game.
But on paper, this should be a routine outing for this very expensive City side. While Alan Dzagoev, Pontus Wernbloom and the Berezutski twins are all capable professionals, only Honda stands above the crowd as a genuine world-level talent. City will have to watch his service off dead balls – something they have been liable to – as well as his ability to split the defense. But if he can be contained, City’s creators – David Silva and Yaya Toure in particular – should find ample room to roam. Indeed, City bossed the early going in Moscow only to be done in by their inattention. And the firepower, again, is substantial: Alvaro Negredo and Aguero have both looked fearsome, and if Toure is allowed license to wander, look out.
One odd fact: the Sky Blues made queasy team history on Saturday, fielding an all-foreign XI for the first time that relegated their British players to the bench. They are likely to repeat the feat again Tuesday, demonstrating for many here how far off the pace home-grown talent truly is.
That’s not something Pellegrini, a Chilean who was brought in to “fix” the mistakes of the Roberto Mancini era, will worry much about. He stands on the cusp of making history for City, and will snatch it any way he can.