There is something about UEFA Champions League matchday one that brings out the worst in Russian clubs. It was no surprise that PFC CSKA Moskva and FC Zenit suffered defeats at FC Bayern München and Club Atlético de Madrid – because FC Spartak Moskva remain the last Russian side to win on the competition's opening day, at Olympique de Marseille in 2010.
This week, Russia's two representatives can look forward to home comforts – well almost. Zenit get the ball rolling against FK Austria Wien on Tuesday, before CSKA Moskva meet FC Viktoria Plzeň 24 hours later in a match that will also take place at the Stadion Petrovski. There is a simple answer to why the Army Men are being forced to play 700km away from the Russian capital: the pitch at their usual ground, the Arena Khimki, is unplayable after two weeks of heavy rain in Moscow.
Yet while the Stadion Petrovksi prepares to host back-to-back matches, the teams themselves go into their respective fixtures in contrasting domestic form. Since their defeat by Atlético, Luciano Spalletti's Zenit have won three games in a row in the Russian Premier League, scoring 12 and conceding just three goals.
On Saturday, they beat bitter rivals FC Spartak Moskva 4-2 to go three points clear of the Muscovites at the top of the table, with forward Hulk scoring in his fourth consecutive outing. The attacking triumvirate of Hulk, Danny – who leads the domestic scoring charts with eight goals – and Aleksandr Kerzhakov look as though they are finally beginning to play to their potential.
If confidence in the Zenit camp is sky high, the same cannot be said for CSKA. Leonid Slutski's team got the Russian season off to a great start, earning 20 points from a possible 24 and going unbeaten in all competitions until their trip to Munich a fortnight ago.
Since that 3-0 reverse, though, the Russian champions have succumbed by the same scoreline at Spartak, drawn at home to lowly FC Anji Makhachkala and, on Saturday, lost 2-0 away against second-from-bottom FC Terek Grozny. As a consequence they have failed to score in 279 minutes, their last goal coming against FC Rostov on 14 September.
The continued absence of key forwards Alan Dzagoev and Seydou Doumbia – both struggling with hamstring injuries – has not helped and neither is likely to be fit to face Plzeň, which puts yet more emphasis on Ahmed Musa. However, the Nigerian front man has been less than prolific, unable to find the net in a month, with his last strike registered against FC Amkar Perm in August.
Both Zenit and CSKA are entertaining the respective outsiders in their groups and nothing less than three points will suffice if either has ambitions of qualifying for the knockout stages – especially for the capital club in a group containing Bayern and Manchester City FC.
Yet while Zenit will be quietly confident of collecting their first victory of the tournament, given their excellent recent results, the Army Men encounter a Plzeň side who relish playing away in Europe. Pavel Vrba's troops have put together a run of five wins and two draws on the road since losing to Atlético in their opening away fixture of last season's UEFA Europa League group stage. CSKA have been warned.
The opinions expressed here are the writer's own and not those of UEFA.
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