Mark González's start to life at PFC CSKA Moskva has been hampered by injury but a "special match" against Sevilla FC offers the ex-Real Betis Balompié winger the chance to make up for lost time.
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Mark González has not enjoyed the easiest of transitions to life at PFC CSKA Moskva, but having shaken off a frustrating ankle injury he is eager to make up for lost time, starting with a grudge match against Sevilla FC.
If González remains unfamiliar in Russia, the Chilean international winger needs no introduction to Sevilla fans having spent the last two seasons in the Andalusian city with Real Betis Balompié. He expects a thorny reception from the visiting supporters at the Luzhniki Stadium for Wednesday's UEFA Champions League first knockout round first leg. "I don't think they'll welcome me because I played at Betis, but this is a new chapter for me and I'm with a new team," said the 25-year-old. "It could be a special game, playing against a side I once considered arch-rivals."
According to Phil Ball, author of Morbo: The History of Spanish Football, the Seville derby has "always had some mysterious needle that is hard to fathom". González's contribution as Betis took four points from their neighbours last term is neither forgiven nor forgotten on the red-and-white side of town. Having also lost four earlier encounters with Sevilla – in the colours of Albacete Balompié, Real Sociedad de Fútbol and then Betis – does he anticipate more success this week? "I think so. If we didn't have the ability to beat Sevilla, we wouldn't be at this stage of the Champions League," said the former Liverpool FC man.
"We have a strong enough team to beat Sevilla, although we know they play very well and have great players, especially down the flanks. But the truth is, if we do well, we can upset their game." CSKA showed their potential in the group stage, particularly on Matchday 5, nullifying the attacking threat of Edin Džeko and Zvjezdan Misimović as they came from behind to beat VfL Wolfsburg, their main rivals for second place behind Manchester United FC in Group B.
"We all know Sevilla's strength lies with their tall, strong striker Frédéric Kanouté; on the wings they have Jesús Navas and Diego Capel; then, of course, there is Luis Fabiano," said González, who joined CSKA on a five-year contract in June after Betis were relegated from the Liga. "Yet we should be focusing on the players we have, and it will be quite an even match. I believe, as I mentioned before, that if we do things right we won't have a problem winning."
González may owe his winning mentality and ability to adapt to his father Raúl, a former Chilean international right-back who had just ended his playing career in South Africa when his son was born. The family returned to Chile when Mark was ten and he was still in his teens when he came to Europe – landing at Albacete from CD Universidad Católica. He quickly lived up to his apt, if predictable, nickname of 'Speedy' – while González utters "Vamos tata" (come on, grandad) before each game there is little need for team-mates to repeat it.
He went to Liverpool, moved back to Spain and is now keen to make his mark in Russia. Despite the cold, CSKA's new No13 feels he has settled, even if he has been restricted to just six appearances, his recovery from an ankle injury coinciding with the conclusion of the Russian Premier-Liga in late November.
The Army Men have had to make do with friendlies since, and though they were unbeaten in five outings before a 3-0 defeat by Ukrainian side FC Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk last Thursday, it is hardly ideal preparation for the Sevilla tie. "We have been in pre-season and getting in shape, something that could make things a bit difficult. We just have to worry about playing well and winning, though. That is the most important thing."