Friday 24 January 2020

New stadium struggles and overtaken by rivals - Arsenal should feel at home in Moscow

Shadow of Russian game hangs heavy over CSKA

Arsenal duo Nacho Monreal and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang are all smiles during training yesterday in London. Photo: PA
Arsenal duo Nacho Monreal and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang are all smiles during training yesterday in London. Photo: PA

Jack Pitt-Brooke

For CSKA Moscow, the ground where they will host Arsenal tonight is a reminder of how far they have come, in more ways than one. For 16 years Moscow's army club was homeless, drifting around the city, and it was only less than two years ago that this new 30,000-seater stadium opened near their historic home of Khodynka Field.

Simply building a new, modern, attractive ground in Moscow, without much government help, is testament enough to the work of Yevgeni Giner, the Russian energy magnate who has funded and run the club since 2001. It cost $350million, shared between borrowing and by Giner himself, rather than by the Russian government.

That cost has seen CSKA enter what Arsene Wenger would describe as a "restricted financial period", and Arsenal would certainly recognise the dilemma: building yourself a new modern home is far-sighted, but it does mean you cannot spend that money on players.

But if the glory days of Giner's CSKA are behind them, then at least the VEB Arena has found a way to remind people of just how good they were. In one corner of the ground is a 142-metre skyscraper in the shape of the UEFA Cup, that CSKA won back in 2005.


That night in Lisbon, beating Sporting CP 3-1 in their own stadium, is still one of the great moments of modern Russian football. That CSKA team, who did not even have their own home ground, had a Russian base: Igor Akinfeev, Sergei Ignashevich, the Berezutskiy brothers and Yuri Zhirkov. And, in front of that, well-picked Brazilian talent in Dani Carvalho and Vagner Love up front.

Looking back, the mid-2000s were a high-point of Russian football optimism. Three years after CSKA's triumph, an even better Zenit St Petersburg side won the 2008 UEFA Cup, beating Glasgow Rangers in Manchester. They had Andrei Arshavin, Igor Denisov and Roman Shirokov, players who, combined with the CSKA defence, reached the semi-finals of Euro 2008. Not since the collapse of the Soviet Union had Russian football been so successful or so outward-looking, and the power of Russian money, not least in the form of Roman Abramovich at Chelsea, was part of that picture too.

More than 10 years on, even with the World Cup two months away, much of that vision has faded. Russian oligarchs have been overtaken by the sovereign wealth of the Middle East. Chelsea cannot financially compete with Manchester City, Monaco cannot financially compete with Paris Saint-Germain.

Most new investors into English football are from China now. And the state-backed Chinese Super League has made far more lucrative offers to the best Brazilian talent than the Russian Premier League can, after years of war and economic crisis.

This is why CSKA, for all their hard work, cannot be as competitive as they used to be. The conditions for the great team of the 2000s, that won the Russian Premier League in 2003, 2005 and 2006, and again 2013, 2014 and 2016, simply do not exist any more. Even for this, widely acknowledged as the best-run club in Russia.

Giner loves backing CSKA and is said by those who know him to see it as even more important than his business empire. But his own fortune has been hit by the war and economic collapse of recent years.

The war cost him money, and last year he agreed to pay back $100million to creditor Alfa Bank. He has paid heavily for the stadium, too, money that can no longer go on players. CSKA fans always used to sing "Giner bought this, and everything", but their big-spending days are over.

No-one sums up that mixture of old expectations and new reality better than Vitinho. When CSKA signed the young Brazilian striker from Botafogo in 2013 they were thrilled, having beaten Porto, Benfica and Galatasaray to his signature. Giner paid €10m for him and the hope in Moscow was that he would be their new Vagner Love.

But expectations were too high, Vitinho failed to make an impact and he was loaned back to Brazil. CSKA could not find a new home for him and so he is still in their squad even now. But there is an acceptance at the club that they will not be signing any more Vitinhos any time soon.

CSKA have to work differently now. They try to maximise commercial and match-day revenue but it is hard in this economic climate. Many of the offices in the UEFA Cup trophy tower have gone unfilled.

The club is simply not turning over enough money to start paying big transfer fees again. Their most exciting recent signing was loaning back Ahmed Musa from Leicester City, 18 months after selling him for £16m.

It was little surprise when Leonid Slutsky, after seven years of service, decided at the end of 2016 that he needed a change. He left to move to England, scouting for Chelsea and briefly managing Hull City.

Slutsky was replaced by Viktor Goncharenko, a talented coach but one tasked with keeping this team competitive without much fresh investment.

The result is a CSKA team that will be at least half-familiar to any English football fan. Akinfeev, Ignashevitch and the Berezutskiy brothers are all still there. Goncharenko has one of Russia's best academies to work with, and in Alan Dzagoev and Aleksandr Golovin has two of the best talents of an otherwise unimpressive generation of Russian players.

But he also has to experiment to make the most of restricted resources, and when Swedish holding midfielder Pontus Wernbloom starts playing up front, the problem is clear. The players from the 2005 triumph are still there, and the trophy will tower over them tonight, but the chance of a Russian repeat is fading into the distant past.

© Independent News Service

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