CSKA Moscow have already experienced the ‘Sound of Silence’ in this season’s Champions League as they go into tonight’s crunch Group E encounter with Manchester City.
The repugnant Russians were forced by UEFA to play Bayern Munich behind closed doors in the Arena Khimki last month, as punishment for the antics of their yobbish, racist chanting fans.
Despite losing narrowly to Bayern, it could be argued that the former Soviet Army’s favourite club has a distinct advantage over City when it comes to adapting to this evening’s eerie and surreal occasion.
But before Vladimir Putin’s pugilists get ahead of themselves they should think on…Manchester City have been performing before crowds of ‘invisible men’ claiming ‘We’re not, we’re not really here…’ for nearly two decades.
With a ‘crowd’ of approximately 575, comprising UEFA officials, CSKA and City delegations plus a few ball boys/girls in the 18,600 capacity stadium, it’ll be more like a training session than a full blown, mission critical Champions League tie.
The malevolent Muscovites are also banned from the return fixture in Manchester on Bonfire Night, prompting the enlightened commercial brains at the Etihad to offer home fans a buy one-get- one free deal on the £25-a-time tickets for November 5th.
Doubtless the City haters in the media will contrive to mock the fan-friendly initiative, but the enterprising marketing team at the Etihad can turn a deaf ear and ignore the imbeciles who infest the malicious anti-City press and pundits corp.
Of course it’s the 11 to 14 individuals who take to the field of play in City colours who carry more sway than any number of thousands who populate the terraces.
Manuel Pellegrini’s tactical acumen and adaptability will be under scrutiny as City seek the vital win to keep alive their Champions League aspirations.
City have found themselves outnumbered in midfield against both Bayern Munich and AS Roma in their opening two matches in Group E, as Pellegrini has opted for two distinct strikers in a 4-4-2 formation.
With so many of City’s European opponents lining up in a 4-5-1 – or a derivation thereof – Pellegrini’s men have surrendered midfield control far too often. It cost them against Barcelona in the knock-out stages last season. It simply has to stop.
Pellegrini has a decent Champions League pedigree having taken Villarreal to the semi finals and quarter finals and, more latterly, taken unfancied Malaga to within seconds of a semi final, before being cheated by two dubious Borussia Dortmund ‘goals’ in added time.
With Yaya Toure, Fernandinho and Fernando all fit, it gives the City boss the chance to set his team out to optimise the ball winning capabilities of the two Brazilians, while giving Yaya licence to go forward.
David Silva is a given as City’s main creative outlet, albeit he was below par against Spurs at the weekend, having suffered a recent illness during the international break.
All-action James Milner must surely start, thus facilitating Aleksander Kolarov at left back with his sharpshooting ‘AK47’ crosses on which Edin Dzeko can feed and help City secure the victory.
The overlapping prowess and all-round play of Pablo Zabaleta will provide a threat down City’s right flank and Vincent Kompany and superfast Eliaquim Mangala should provide the central defensive partnership.
CSKA striker Ahmed Musa has taunted City claiming the English champions are very weak in defence. We’ll see at 17.00hrs today how he and his team mates can exploit any such frailty.
City will miss the experience, guile and eye for goal of the injured Frank Lampard who has been left behind in Manchester to have treatment on the thigh injury sustained against Spurs.
Super Frankie would surely have played some part, probably coming off the subs bench, in the sub-zero Russian capital. Such a role could fall to another City superman, Sergio Aguero.
It might seem bizarre to not start with Aguero following his four goal feast on Saturday lunchtime, but it makes a lot of sense, both tactically and from a squad rotation perspective.
One of City’s principal forwards has to be sacrificed if Pellegrini is going to play a five man midfield. Dzeko is fresh from not playing at the weekend and provides an aerial threat.
Equally if things aren’t going to plan, the introduction of Aguero can easily change the course of the match and get City back on track.
Anything less than a win tonight will make it devilishly difficult for City to reach the last 16 knockout stage.
Contrastingly maximum points in Moscow and in the return leg a fortnight later will set City up for a barnstorming night with Bayern in Manchester on November 25th.
The back-to-back clashes between Roma and Munich will help clarify what City must do to climb out of Group E, but it’ll be academic if they cannot repeat last season’s win in Moscow.
With a minimal attendance it clearly won’t be a case of ‘Cum On Feel The Noize’ this evening in the Khimki Arena.
But City must hit the right notes if they are to keep the evocative ‘Champions League’ theme – UEFA’s adaptation of Handel’s ‘Coronation Anthem’ – reverberating in their season well into 2015.
By David Walker
www.readbutneverred.com @ReadButNeverRed @djwskyblu