Manchester City emerged from CSKA Moscow’s notorious Khimki Arena with three precious Champions League points having enjoyed the rub of the green after a less than glossy performance.
The 2-1 win, achieved courtesy of Sergio Aguero’s second brace within 96 hours, puts Manuel Pellegrini’s men in pole position to progress to the last 16 of the competition – provided they don’t misfire in the return fixture on Bonfire Night.
City were hot favourites going into the match on a cold uninviting Muscovite night, but they made heavy weather of the victory on a cow patch of a pitch, bizarrely painted green just hours before kick-off by their Russian hosts.
Pellegrini swapped both the full backs from City’s Saturday night triumph at West Ham, with Pablo Zabaleta and Aleksander Kolarov replacing Micah Richards and Gael Clichy.
The continued absence of skipper Vincent Kompany and the still not match-fit, Martin Demichelis, saw Matija Nastasic and Javi Garcia retained in central defence – a centre back pairing that gives many City fans palpitations and opposition strikers goal-scoring aspirations.
It was disjointed defending that allowed CSKA’s livewire striker Zoran Tosic to put the hosts ahead with a shock 31st minute lead. An uncouth ‘route one’ Moscow attack was aided and abetted by City’s inept backline, as the Serbian attacker lobbed Joe Hart from close range.
A long clearance up field was nodded into Tosic’s path by Keisuke Honda when the smooth running midfielder out-jumped makeshift centre back Garcia. The goal – against the run of play – served to emphasise the vulnerability of City’s defence.
City seemed comfortable enough without posing any real threat in the first half hour, but thankfully the ever-alert Aguero was on hand to level matters just two minutes after CSKA gained the advantage.
The Argentine striker’s telepathic-like understanding with playmaker David Silva was, once again rewarded, when he darted in front of his Moscow marker to finish off the Spaniard’s low whipped-in cross.
The rowdy Russian crowd – sections of which were later to disgrace themselves with racist ‘monkey chants’ directed at Yaya Toure – were stung silent.
With half-time approaching it was once again left to City’s tastier than tiramisu tantalising triumvirate of Silva, Negredo and Aguero, to sweeten proceedings.
Silva’s contribution in the last three consecutive wins has been immense and so it was again, as he weaved his magic in the CSKA box, before laying the ball off to Negredo.
Surrounded by defenders, The Beast somehow managed to turn a full 360 degrees, switching the ball to his weaker left side, before crafting a breathtaking pass with the outside curvature of his foot.
Football beauty personified, it was met with bravery and purpose as Sergio swooped in, head low, risking a clattering to his cranium from keeper Akinfeev’s flailing boot as he dispatched the ball into the CSKA net.
The goal – Aguero’s 10th for the club in European competition – gave City a crucial lead they would not relinquish. It also secured Sergio a place in City’s record books, surpassing Francis Lee’s scoring accomplishments in continental cup contests.
Franny was quick to congratulate Sergio on twitter, tweeting ‘Well done on beating my European City scoring record…hope there are many more to come!’
Negredo could have added to City’s tally had it not been for the vigilance of one of UEFA’s goal line officials who spotted the Spaniard’s inadvertent handling of the ball as Navas fired in a bullet of a cross. The Beast was subsequently, somewhat harshly, booked.
City had multiple chances to increase their lead; Silva was wrong-footed as a Kolarov cross came at him in front of goal, Akinfeev tipped a dipping 20 yard Yaya shot over the bar, while substitute Dzeko missed a couple of good opportunities from close range.
CSKA had sensed they could grab at least a draw and came close to equalising on several occasions. Joe Hart produced an acrobatic save from a Doumbia header, but the real drama came in the 8oth minute when Musa struck a 20-yard pile driver with Hart well beaten.
The ‘goal’ was disallowed after the referee ruled Yaya had been kicked in the face while attempting a headed clearance.
City’s band of travelling supporters breathed a sigh of relief, as did the many tens of thousands glued to their TV’s over an early evening ‘tea’.
Honda – the engine of most of CSKA’s attacking play (sorry, couldn’t resist) – produced a heart-stopping, Hart stopping, moment just 30 seconds from the end when, left unmarked, he seemed certain to score from six yards out.
The England keeper’s legs deflected the Japanese star’s shot to safety and secured the win. The recently much maligned (often unfairly) City goalie, was mobbed by his team mates at the final whistle – they knew Joe had just made qualification from Group D a whole lot less difficult.
A second CL away win means City should go beyond the group stage for the first time if they can earn a repeat win over CSKA in Manchester on November 5th.
It would be a massive bonus for Pellegrini and City if they can secure safe passage with two games (Plzen at home and Bayern Munich away) still to play.
It would ease any selection dilemmas and enable more focus on tough Premier League encounters with Spurs and Swansea, Southampton & Arsenal, either side of the remaining CL fixtures.
And with Chelsea and the spectre of the man who succeeded him as Real Madrid boss, Jose Mourinho, looming on Sunday, Pellegrini will be up for a tremendous triple if he can score his third win away from the Etihad in a week.
It’s a big ask, nonetheless it is achievable.
Chelsea of old used to sing ‘Blue is the Colour’ but, on the basis of painted pitches in Russia and consecutive away wins, it may well be ‘Green for Go’ for Manuel and his team of travellers.
By David Walker
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