Manchester United might still look a pale imitation at times of the side who were crowned champions of Europe on the green grass of Moscow last year but there is nothing cheap and plastic about the way they continue to stride on towards another final, in Madrid next Spring.
The past 48 hours have revealed how much of a threat Russian football money can pose on the continent but the prospect of both last season's finalists succumbing to Russian opposition on successive nights – after Barcelona's defeat to Rubin Kazan – was never remotely likely. United's utter domination on a plastic pitch was rewarded with a wonderfully constructed and finished goal four minutes from time by Antonio Valencia and a win that means they have matched the record set by Ajax between 1994 and 1997 of 14 away matches unbeaten in the Champions League. Total football this was not but, put with the 77th-minute win in Besiktas, it underlines United's know-how on the continent and it all but delivers them to the last 16.
The ramifications for a more significant occasion ahead are substantial, too. Sir Alex Ferguson admitted before the game that his decision to leave five players behind in Manchester was in part born of an unwillingness to risk the jarring effects of the plastic pitch ahead of Sunday's visit to Anfield. The match was also comfortable enough for him to withdraw Rio Ferdinand on the hour. The respective European positions of Liverpool and United could not offer greater contrasts this morning.
Ferguson's spirits will also be lifted by evidence that those he is depending on to deliver finally proved they can. A disappointingly anaemic CSKA Moscow provide no real barometer but Nani was the one individual who seemed to enjoy manipulating a ball around on plastic and United's eventual domination was built around him. Valencia can take the praise for a wonderful volleyed goal after he was first to a ball that Dimitar Berbatov flicked on with his head but it was Nani who provided the effortless chipped ball in.
As usual, Nani was not without his frustrations and Berbatov, the lone striker, threw up his hands on several occasions as crossing opportunities were squandered. But the Portuguese was denied a good penalty call when Chidi Odiah tugged at his shirt as he met a fine Gary Neville cross with a second-half header which forced a fine save from Igor Akinfeev.
Rafael Benitez's only encouragement may come from United's occasional frailties in central defense. Liverpool know all about that kind of calamity but Nemanja Vidic did not look like a defender who played for two years on plastic for Spartak Moscow. The course of the night might have been different had not CSKA's own Serbian, Milos Krasic – their most dangerous weapon – fired over, seconds after Vidic had squandered possession. Fernando Torres, Vidic's nemesis at Old Trafford in March, awaits.
It was a night that invited comparison with Ferguson's last European Champions. Only six of the team who began on that night of biblical weather against Chelsea were in this starting line-up and Ferguson selected a more unusual starting XI than ever. Anderson operated in an uncustomary role behind Berbatov. John O'Shea was preferred to Michael Carrick as the holding midfielder and Fabio da Silva was given a Champions League debut in Patrice Evra's absence.
Neither side initially found much ability to conquer a surface in which the ball did not travel with any pace and the football was the poorer for it in the first half. When Valencia finally did reach Berbatov in the closing stages of that period, the striker rolled the ball under his foot to lose his defender and then lost the ball, too. His frustration after it had disappeared under his feet was palpable.
Of course, one imagines that Paul Scholes would flourish if asked to play a Champions League group stage game in a sand dune and he caused CSKA their biggest fright with a 20-yard top-spin shot that dipped in the air, deceiving Akinfeev when it bounced directly before him and was pushed away. Gary Neville tried his arm from distance, too, almost finding the net for the first time in five years with a strong left-foot shot.
The match was assuming the proportions of the win in Besiktas – in which Rooney had cut an isolated, frustrated figure – when Alexei Berezutski came in with a challenge on Berbatov as the striker ran into the penalty area. It looked a marginal infringement but Berbatov's desperation prompted a threatrical dive that led to a booking for simulation.
This was the start of a period of play which demonstrated that United in general – and Nani in particular – were getting to grips with the surface. Fabio, whose creditable Champions League debut was marked by some ambitious advances to go with occasional defensive lapses, raced into the box from the right but fired straight at Akinfeev. Valencia struggled for a good second touch as he ran to the right-hand byline to cross but promptly conjured something better from the right. Michael Owen, who had arrived in place of Paul Scholes as United sought to make something of all their possession, missed his shot badly.
It was hard to tell whether Fabio's grimace when United scored was one of pleasure or pain but it later transpired that his departure seconds after the goal was a result only of cramp. In his absence came another sublime move that almost saw United double their lead when a ball played up by Valencia to Berbatov was rolled back under his studs by the Bulgarian to Anderson, whose fierce shot was deflected millimetres wide. "We have adjusted to playing away in Europe, we are accustomed to it now," United's manager reflected last night. "There are certain principles and we stick to them." The pitch might have been artificial but the performance was wholly authentic.
CSKA Moscow (4-4-1-1) Akinfeev; Odiah, V Berezutski, Ignashevich, A Berezutski; Krasic, Semberas, Rahimic (D Carvalho, 90), Schennikov (Mamaev, 62); Dragoev; Necid (Piliev, 73). Substitutes not used: Pomazan, Aldonin, Piliev, Oliseh, Grigoriev.
Manchester United (4-2-3-1) Van der Sar; Neville, Vidic, Ferdinand (Brown, 57), Da Silva (Carrick, 88); O'Shea, Scholes (Owen, 71); Valencia, Anderson, Nani; Berbatov. Substitutes not used: Kuszcak, Carrick, Welbeck, Evans, Macheda
Referee: C Bo Larsen (Denmark).Reuse content