It might be the scene of one of Manchester United's greatest triumphs but the grass was greener back then. The Luzhniki Stadium, turfed for the 2008 Champions League final against Chelsea, has been restored to its usual plastic properties tonight and there is optimism in the Russian capital that Sir Alex Ferguson's side will suffer the same fate that Steve McClaren's England did there on another late October evening, precisely two years and four days ago.
The national side lost 2-1 on the plastic and with the only Englishman who had the ball in the Russian net back home in Cheshire – he answers to the name of Rooney – one of England's tormentors-in-chief from that occasion suggested yesterday that there could be a second upset in store for the Muscovites.
"Several United players played on this pitch against Russia for England, and they know how different it is," said the central defender Sergei Ignashevich. "We are used to it and for us the switch from natural to artificial turf is not that hard. With low autumn temperatures, the ball will be slick and the bounce off the surface will be quicker than normal."
Ignashevich, part of a side undefeated at home in Juande Ramos' six-week reign, might have had Rio Ferdinand (another of McClaren's men) in mind when he spoke boldly of a perceived weakness in Ferguson's side. "United are a very experienced side, but they have weak points," said Ignashevich.
"They are less confident and aggressive away from home. We are in a fighting mood because maximum points at home would pretty much guarantee progress from the group, so we put in maximum effort in every home game."
Ryan Giggs, a player, like Rooney, whose close control would have been useful on the plastic, is also missing, though Ferguson declared that his side would keep the ball on the plastic – as the conditions demand. "It's a true pitch and they [CSKA] can keep the ball down on it and pass it around," the United manager said. "The problems start when you begin to lift the ball on this surface. But we have good players also, so that is not a problem for us."
The home side have been the subject of newspaper reports in Russia that oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov, one of the richest men in Russia, who is worth more than $9bn (£5.5bn) and is set to become the new owner of the NBA's New Jersey basketball team, might be about to buy CSKA. The money has certainly made the Russian threat a real one to Ferguson's mind. "It's a much more affluent league," he said. "It's similar to the German and French leagues and, when you go back to the great teams of Moscow Dynamo, you now have teams like Zenit and Rubin Kazan. It's an amazing change and it shows there is room for ambition."
Ferguson would again brook no discussion of referee Alan Wiley – "silly question, gets no answer" – and also rejected any suggestion that he may have half an eye on Sunday's encounter with Liverpool in his team selection. He also brushed aside reports that CSKA keeper Igor Akinfeev might be a future replacement for Edwin van der Sar, and if thoughts of that 21 May evening against Chelsea in the Luzhniki had crossed his mind, Ferguson was not admitting it. "It doesn't excite me or anything like that. It's obviously a fantastic memory, but it's in the past and I tend to put things in the past really." Another surface, another game. Ferguson has too much on his mind for reverie of any kind.
Results so far: Besiktas 0 Man Utd 1; Wolfsburg 3 CSKA 1; CSKA 2 Besiktas 1; Man Utd 2 Wolfsburg 1.
Manchester United's remaining games: Tonight: CSKA (a); 3 Nov: CSKA (h); 25 Nov: Besiktas (h); 8 Dec: Wolfsburg (a).
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