CSKA Moscow vs Manchester City: Manuel Pellegrini yet to find the finesse for Euro success

Manager’s tactics under the spotlight after CSKA capitulation

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The Independent Football

Success in Europe is actually about having a very definite plan and sticking to it, as the example of one of the Champions League’s great overachievers of modern times proves only too well. That man, Rafael Benitez, has said that European knockout competition involves “the management of 180 minutes; the tactical preparation needed to overcome opponents expected to beat us” – and he should know. Take a look again at the Liverpool side who beat Milan in the Champions League final in 2005, which included Djimi Traoré, Harry Kewell and Milan Baros. “We had to make the best use of what we had,” is how Benitez has summed up that night in Istanbul and it is a salutary lesson to any manager hooked on spending for success.

As Manchester City’s intricately assembled squad seek to fathom another European performance which was vastly short of the required measure, their manager, Manuel Pellegrini, might consider that mantra of Benitez’s. It will be a little too utilitarian for his liking: Pellegrini will tell anyone who cares to listen that he will never sacrifice his team’s attacking game. But his disinclination to go for a five-man midfield in Moscow goes some way to explaining the enigma of CSKA’s recovery from a 2-0 half-time deficit to draw 2-2 on Tuesday.

The psychological deficit in Europe must also be factored in, too. City simply never seem possessed with a belief they are going to win in the Champions League, but some tactical rigour would fortify them. The deployment of a two-man strike force away from home – something Sir Alex Ferguson realised was folly after Manchester United’s crushing 3-0 defeat to Milan in San Siro in 2007, which changed his tactics on the Continent – was too ambitious. Pellegrini evidently believes that five in midfield is necessary only against Europe’s best sides and that CSKA Moscow are not in that bracket. He reverted to it at Bayern Munich last month and dispensed with it in Moscow. CSKA rolled through City’s central areas in the second half.

City signed the defensive midfielder Fernando this summer to stop European sides advancing in this way. A holding pair of Fernando and Fernandinho, with Yaya Touré, James Milner and David Silva ahead in the 4-2-3-1 system Ferguson favoured abroad from 2007, looked the likely model for the Arena Khimki on Tuesday. Or Fernando at the back of a five-man midfield in a 4-1-4-1. Instead, only Fernando sat behind. Pellegrini still did not look for the extra solidity when CSKA pulled their first goal back with 26 minutes to go. He swapped attacker for attacker: Jesus Navas for Edin Dzeko. The game had only 12 minutes to run when Fernandinho arrived, in place of Silva.


Defender Pablo Zabaleta made the very significant observation in the aftermath of City’s second-half capitulation that the side only know how to play when controlling the game. “We are one team when we play with intensity, with the ball,” he said. “When we start to give some balls away so cheaply, we are not the same team. It’s then that we don’t know how to control the game.”

Before the game, he admitted that City had an inherent defensive weakness: “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. We’re not going to change this.”

Benitez, who has needed to head to Napoli to further his career, may not be an in-vogue manager, but he would argue that kind of acceptance is just not good enough.

Benitez found Roberto Mancini, Pellegrini’s predecessor, no less vulnerable. When Mancini’s Internazionale side faced Liverpool in the Champions League last 16 in 2008, Benitez singled out centre-back Marco Materazzi as the weak link and repeatedly showed his players DVDs of an overlapping Maicon being caught out of position – as he was for Roma at the Etihad last month. Materazzi, overwhelmed by Fernando Torres, was sent off in the first leg at Anfield as Liverpool won 2-0. Mancini then declared he was quitting after a 1-0 home defeat. City seem a long way from the Benitez way. Success in Europe  is complicated. It entails more than assembling a  great squad.