Manchester United managed to qualify for the UEFA Champions League after brilliantly winning the Europa League at the back end of last season. They were pulled out of Pot 2 first which meant they joined Benfica in Group A. However, after their first match in this term’s European group stage, it isn’t the Portuguese giants that they need to be wary of. It’s CSKA Moscow who will pose more of a threat to Jose Mourinho’s men after the Russian side narrowly defeated Benfica 2-1 in Portugal. Despite them being pulled out of Pot 4, they looked very dangerous on the break in their first Champions League game of the campaign.
It was Manchester United who went top of the group after the first evening of European action with a comfortable 3-0 win over Swiss side, FC Basel. Their first two goal scorers were born in Belgium as Marouane Fellaini converted from Ashley Young’s cross before Romelu Lukaku doubled their lead with a powerful header from Daley Blind’s drifted cross. Marcus Rashford then finished off the win with a side-footed finish after Fellaini’s pass across the box. One negative for Mourinho was that Paul Pogba was forced off in the first-half with what looks like a hamstring injury.
It would be easy for the Red Devils to focus on Benfica as their main threat in Group A due to them being bigger in stature than CSKA Moscow and Basel. Although on reflection of their 2-1 away win in the first match in the group, it is the Russians who play the role of the dark horse, and they could easily take one of the two qualification places through to the knockout rounds of the Champions League. Despite having just over 25% possession against Benfica and being outplayed for large parts of the match, they still managed to pick up a win that could turn out to be huge in the context of qualification.
After going a goal behind, it looked like CSKA Moscow would have to accept defeat but they didn’t give up and managed to clinch the vital three points with their two goals coming from Vitinho and Timur Zhamaletdinov. They looked to cause damage on the counter attack, and that’s exactly what they did like the first goal (a penalty) came off the back of a corner they earned after some great counter-attacking play. The winning goal came against the run of play, and while Benfica will be devastated to come away with nothing from the match, it was a fantastic smash-and-grab victory from CSKA.
This is what Manchester United must be careful of as they will look to take the game to their opponents in both of their meetings in this group. And with their defensive frailties, this could pose a huge threat. If they do push forward, it is important that one of the midfielders is careful of approaching the CSKA Moscow penalty area. This could leave them very exposed at the back and may easily see the Russian side execute the same game plan as they did against Benfica.
The Red Devils make the trip to the VEB Arena at the end of this month on the 27th before the reverse fixture is played at Old Trafford on the 5th of December, which is the final group match. By the time the last game comes around, Mourinho’s side may have already secured qualification to the next round, but they will have to ensure they don’t leave any exploitable gaps for both fixtures as CSKA have already shown their counter-attacking capabilities in just one European match.