CSKA Moscow vs Manchester City: Challenge of empty stands must be met to save stuttering campaign

Fernandinho admits playing behind closed doors will be difficult as Manuel Pellegrini’s side know they cannot afford to lose to CSKA

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The Independent Online

The sound of silence which echoed around the eerie and rain-swept arena near the Moscow Canal’s west bank on Monday night was one that Manchester City are preparing, with some trepidation, to encounter again.

LATEST: CSKA Moscow vs Manchester City

The absence of a partisan Muscovite crowd might sound ideal for a Champions League tie which they cannot afford to lose, but no one is pretending that raising their spirit and their game to face CSKA will be easy behind closed doors.

Fernandinho, the City midfielder who has been one of the most important players in this so far unconvincing European campaign, reflected before stepping out into the cold and drizzle of a near freezing night that his two previous experiences of playing in an empty stadium had been challenging.

One was while in Brazil; the other for Shakhtar Donetsk in a 2005 Champions League qualifying tie against an Internazionale side who were punished for their fans’ misdemeanours in the previous season’s quarter-final. “You have to keep your concentration on the pitch and try to win the game,” he said.

“I don’t think it will be an advantage for us. It is always good when you play away because the [home] fans support their team and it gives you more motivation to play well. I don’t think [a closed stadium] is good for either team or for football.” It wasn’t for his Shakhtar side. They drew 1-1 at San Siro nine years ago and were eliminated.

The perennial anxiety that can beset City fans at a pivotal moment like this has led to much talk of CSKA – who are denied fans home and away throughout the campaign because of their supporters’ persistent racist conduct – being handed a competitive advantage, tonight. CSKA know the territory, having also played behind closed doors against Bayern Munich last month, the argument runs.

“The [Bayern] game looked like a training session [from watching on TV],” said Fernandinho, who will be spared some of the extreme workload he has faced in the previous two games if his compatriot Fernando makes his first European start for City tonight. “Bayern just did a very professional job and I think that is the way we must approach the game.” Thomas Müller’s penalty secured the Germans the points from a 1-0 win.

 

There was barely a shout through the mist from the Premier League champions and no high jinks as the club’s coaching staff looked on, clearly concerned by such an alien environment. In such sterile circumstances, the Russian champions’ Nigerian striker Ahmed Musa has done City manager Manuel Pellegrini a favour by publicly declaring that the English team’s defence is rubbish. “You can see they are very weak this year so we are going to try and use that advantage against them,” Musa said. “They are very weak in the defence so we’re going to work against that. We know our weaker points so we’re going to try and do our best.”

Rarely does a player at elite level offer the opposition such an incentive to prove him wrong, though Pablo Zabaleta offered a cool, early rebuttal. “We like to play as an attacking team, but we sometimes leave space at the back,” the Argentine said. “It would be great to leave players at the back, but we like to push high and that leaves space in behind. It is the way we like to play and we are not going to change this.”

City have actually kept only two clean sheets in the Premier League and Champions League this season – against Aston Villa and Newcastle United – though it is the ease with which sides have strolled through their midfield, exposing the back line, which has been the problem. Fernando was bought by City to provide the midfield steel that was lacking in the two Group E games so far  which have brought City a solitary point. His performance in Saturday’s 4-1 win over Tottenham was distinctly unimpressive. Tonight, he could potentially solve the structural problem caused by Yaya Touré’s upfield forays, which have left Fernandinho, the holding partner, with two men’s work to undertake.

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Manuel Pellegrini

 

Pellegrini reasserted last ni ght that he sees Touré as a midfielder, rather than the second striker which the presence of the two Brazilian-born midfielders would allow. “He plays forward with his national squad, but he is an important midfielder for us and that is where he will continue to play,” the manager said. But none of his observations excluded the chance of Touré playing further forward, ahead of a two-man holding line. Touré certainly looks like a player in need of a new environment within the team.

“I don’t agree that Yaya has had a bad season,” Pellegrini added, in the latest of umpteen defences of Touré. “Maybe he just needs time to get back to [last season’s] level. He had a very complicated summer.”

Pellegrini, who may also give Eliaquim Mangala his first Champions League game for City, has one prior experience of managing behind closed doors, too. Never the willing purveyor of a story or anecdote, he said he had forgotten where it was. The talking stops now, in any case. The margins for error have been sacrificed by this stuttering City team. It would be hard to see where qualification from the group can come from if they lose tonight. The spirit of survival must sustain them, on a night when supporters cannot.

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