Manchester United hosted Russian side CSKA Moscow in their final group stage game of this season’s Champions League. The Red Devils knew that a draw would guarantee them top spot in Group A, but CSKA went into this game needing to better Basel’s result to guarantee themselves a spot in the last 16. With the promised land of European knockout football on the line for the visitors, this promised to be an entertaining encounter at Old Trafford.
United dominate the early exchanges
With CSKA knowing that they needed goals in order to give themselves the best chance of progressing, the Russian side set up in an attacking 3-4-3 formation and looked to press for an early opener. The visitors’ attacking start allowed Manchester United to look for goals on the counter however, and Marcus Rashford almost gave his side the perfect start. An intelligent pass from Romelu Lukaku put the English international through on goal, but he scuffed his shot slightly and it came back off the post, landing safely in the arms of Igor Akinfeev. Jose Mourinho’s men began to dominate the game fairly quickly after their early chance, but were happy to drop deep whenever CSKA did find themselves in possession.
The pace of Rashford and Lukaku soon started to cause problems for the visitors, and the former had another good chance after some good work from Juan Mata down the left flank. The Spaniard teed up the striker for an effort from the same sort of areas as his earlier chance, but this time the shot was hit straight at the keeper. Another great came on the 20-minute mark, this time falling to Lukaku. A brilliant cross by Antonio Valencia found Luka Shaw on the left hand side of the box, and the fullback’s volleyed effort was parried straight into the path of the Belgian forward by Akinfeev. Lukaku was unable to sort out his feet however, and snatched at the chance from five yards out, squandering United’s best opportunity of the game.
CSKA take a shock lead through bizarre officiating
The player of the game in the opening half an hour was undoubtedly Luke Shaw, whose energy and direct approach caused havoc down the left flank for Manchester United. The fullback almost set up Rashford for the opener after an exquisitely weighted ball from Paul Pogba, but he slightly over hit his squared pass and the striker was just unable to get on the end of it. Despite all of their early chances Mourinho’s side still couldn’t find an opener, which allowed CSKA the chance to break the deadlock first. The visitors started to look more dangerous as they grew into the game, but found it difficult to create any real penetration through United’s back line.
To their credit Viktor Goncharenko’s side began to maintain extended spells of possession as the clock ticked down towards half time, but many of their attacks lacked a sense of urgency. However their determination eventually paid off, right on the stroke of half time, in contentious circumstances. Some great work down the right wing by Figueira Fernandes led to a simple cross, which found Vitinho open in the United box. The Brazilian’s shot was certainly goal bound, but it struck the back of Alan Dzagoev before ending up in the back of the net. The striker had appeared to be clearly standing in an offside position, but the linesman’s flag never went up, and CSKA went into the break with an unlikely lead.
Lukaku and Rashford restore sanity to the game
After a half time break in which nobody managed to really work out whether the CSKA goal should have stood or not, the home side came out determined to right the wrong that they believed they had suffered. Rashford almost equalised immediately after easily beating the centre halves, but Akinfeev was equal to the striker’s effort once again. United were spurred on by this early chance, and the Old Trafford crowd clearly wanted a goal even just to spite the visitors. Mourinho’s men played at a much higher tempo than they had in the first period, and Chris Smalling was the next man in line to squander a good opportunity. The defender stayed in the box after a corner and was found brilliantly by Mata at the back post, but the England international couldn’t guide his header back across goal and on target.
United quickly began to peg back the visitors, allowing them next to no possession and even less time on the ball, and not letting them out of their own half. The pace of the game quickened as the Red Devils pressed furiously for an equaliser, and CSKA did well to cling on to their lead in the face of so much pressure. Eventually however the Russians crumbled and Manchester United found their goal, courtesy of a deft touch by Romelu Lukaku. A stunning floated cross by Pogba allowed the Belgian to outmuscle the defender and guide a smart finish past Akinfeev. United added a second almost instantly, and this time it was Rashford. The England international was found perfectly by an over the top ball from Mata, and there was no denying him on his left foot as he guided a low shot into the bottom corner.
Manchester United see out a comfortable win
The two quick strikes restored the sanity to the game and returned it to the much slower tempo of the first half. United looked much more comfortable having taken the lead, and seemed content to knock the ball around as the time ticked on. Juan Mata began to turn on the style as the home side played with huge levels of confidence, and the Spaniard skipped past the CSKA defenders as if they weren’t there. Anthony Martial, on as a late substitute, also looked lively as Mourinho’s side showed off their flair and attacking prowess.
Despite the score line the visitors didn’t attack with much vigour in the final minutes, perhaps acknowledging the superior class of Manchester United, and accepting their place in the Europa League after a slightly disappointing group stage. The tempo slowed almost to a crawl as the players waited for the referee’s final whistle, and when it finally came it handed United yet another group stage win. The result sent Mourinho’s men through to the knockout stages, and they will find out their opponents at the draw on Monday.
In the end it was a fairly routine win for Manchester United, who subsequently booked their place in the knockout stages at the top of Group A. It was another impressive attacking performance, and United should have scored more than the two goals that they did end up getting. The fact that Lukaku finally got on the score sheet again will please Mourinho, but now his attention turn to the crucial derby against Manchester City at the weekend.
With Basel winning away at Benfica, CSKA ended up finishing in the Europa League spot after this defeat. It was a fair result on the balance of play, and barring the bizarre circumstances that resulted in their goal, the Russian side created very little in this game. They did however limit United’s opportunities, which is a definite improvement on their performance in Moscow.
Manchester United: Romero; Valencia (Tuanzebe, 72’), Lindelof, Smalling, Shaw, Blind; Herrera (McTominay, 68’), Mata, Pogba; Rashford, Lukaku (Martial, 74’)
CSKA Moscow: Akinfeev; Ignashevich, Vasin, Berezutski; Fernandes, Golovin, Kuchaev, Nababkin (Khosonov, 90+1’); Vitinho (Zhamaletdinov, 82’), Chalov (Gordyushenko, 65’), Dzagoev
Goals: Vitinho (0-1, 45+1), Lukaku (1-1, 64’), Rashford (2-1, 66’)
Referee: Gianluca Rocchi
Yellow Cards: Berezutski (57’), McTominay (73’)
Red Cards: None
Manchester United: Romero 7; Valencia 8 (Tuanzebe 6), Lindelof 7, Smalling 7, Shaw 8, Blind 7; Herrera 7 (McTominay 6), Mata 7, Pogba 8; Rashford 8, Lukaku 8 (Martial n/a)
CSKA Moscow: Akinfeev 5; Ignashevich 6, Vasin 6, Berezutski 6; Fernandes 7, Golovin 6, Kuchaev 6, Nababkin 6 (Khosonov n/a); Vitinho 7 (Zhamaletdinov n/a), Chalov 6 (Gordyushenko 6), Dzagoev 6
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