A win at home against FC Porto would leave PFC CSKA Moskva within an ace of the last 16.
By Eduard Nisenboim
They may have lost their Russian title to FC Lokomotiv Moskva, but PFC CSKA Moskva have the chance to grab an even greater prize as they take on FC Porto on Wednesday.
A goalless draw at home against FC Dinamo Moskva in the penultimate match of the Russian Premier-Liga season allowed Yuri Semin's side to snatch the lead in the table, and Valeri Gazzaev's men were condemned to second place despite a convincing 4-1 win against FC Moskva on the final day of the season.
However, should they manage to earn a win against Porto in Moscow, CSKA could take a giant leap towards the last 16 of the UEFA Champions League as runners up to Chelsea FC in Group H, and condemn the reigning European champions to a premature exit from the competition.
Thanks to Lokomotiv's recent good record in the Champions League, there has been a Russian competitor in the last 16 of the competition for the last two editions of the competition, and despite their lack of experience at this level, CSKA could yet make it three in a row.
The Army Men had not taken part in the group stage of the Champions League since the inaugural edition of the competition in 1992/93, and while they knocked out FC Barcelona on the way, their joy was short-lived as they drew two and lost four of their six matches.
However, that is all ancient history to Gazzaev's men who have been in sprightly form ever since they overcame Scottish champions Rangers FC in the third quaklifying round - to some extent banishing the sour memories of their defeat by FK Vardar in the second qualifying round last season.
Starting off with a goalless draw against Porto and a 2-0 win against Paris Saint-Germain FC, CSKA had no joy in their two games against Chelsea - losing 2-0 in London and 1-0 in Moscow, as Vágner Love failed to convert a penalty - but have good reason to feel that they are in a strong position.
With both of their rivals for second place still having to play a near-invincible looking Chelsea at least once, Gazzaev knows that CSKA's destiny is in their own hands. Win against Porto and they will be through to the last 16 even if they only draw their final game against PSG. "We have home advantage but we still have to make it count," said Gazzaev. "We have only one task - to win."
The pressure should be off Gazzaev's team too. With few expecting them to progress this season, they have already exceeded most expectations, and with the Russian season now over, they have had plenty of time to train in peace. Indeed, even the Russian winter seems to be conspiring in their favour.
CSKA were due to take on FC Sokol Saratov in a Russian Cup game on Saturday, but a heavy overnight snowstorm, which saw more than 10cm of snow settle over the Russian capital, handed CSKA an extra day of pre-match relaxation. Sokol were less lucky. The storm left them stranded in Moscow without a plane home.
Those extra days may have helped defensive midfield player Elvir Rahimic and defenders Sergei Ignashevich and Vassili Berezoutski, all of whom should now be fully fit to face Porto. Indeed, the only probable absentee from Gazzaev's squad is Nigerian defender Chidi Odiah who is still not fully recovered from surgery.