Manchester United are off to Russia! Tomorrow night, United will play just their fourth away game against Russian opposition, and if history is anything to go by, it's going to be absolutely appalling. Here are the three previous visits, and you'll see what we mean when you make it through. Enjoy, if that's not too optimistic a word.
Incidentally, we've not included the 2008 European Super Cup final here, because (a) it's basically a European version of the Charity Shield, and so only worth mentioning if there's a comedy fight or something, which there wasn't, and (b) while it may have been against Zenit St. Petersburg, it was held in Monaco. In front of 18,500 people. Pretty damn super. United lost 2-1.
CSKA Moscow 0-1 Manchester United, 21 October 2009
United have bumped up against tomorrow's opponents once before, back in the group stages of the 2009-10 Champions League. But the game in Russia was nothing special: on the Luzhniki stadium's plastic pitch, United rode their luck a little before edging a close game thanks to a late Antonio Valencia goal.
So let's ignore that, and talk about the reverse fixture, a six-goal thriller at Old Trafford. Needing just a point to ensure a place in the last-16, United — who were a few players short of full strength and started with the rarely-seen, little-missed strike partnership of Michael Owen and Federico Macheda — contrived to get themselves in all sorts of trouble.
First Alan Dzagoev made Jonny Evans look very silly indeed, only for Owen to square things up a few minutes later, tucking home a gorgeous-if-deliberate flick from Nani. Parity didn't last for long, however: CSKA went straight down the other end and restored their lead, Milos Krasic gliding in from the right as United's defence stood around, brows furrowed, focusing on a particularly tricky crossword clue. Then, shortly after halftime, Valery Berezutsky lost his marker and nodded home a deep, hanging freekick. United were two down and looking shambolic.
Hope arrived in the form of the cavalry: Wayne Rooney and Patrice Evra came on just before the hour, and were joined by, er, Gabriel Obertan ten minutes from time. Presumably the arrival of the mysterious Frenchman confused the Russians, because United got themselves back in the game moments later, Paul Scholes foreheading the ball home from a wide freekick. Then, come the 93rd minute, Antonio Valencia realised that it was his moment. It was his time. He drew back his foot; his right, obviously. He planted it through the ball. He watched it fly towards the goal ...
It was missing, obviously. But then it hit the back of a defender and rolled past the wrongfooted Igor Akinfeev. Point secured, job done.
Rotor Volgograd 0-0 Manchester United, 12 September 1995
The UEFA Cup is the only European competition missing from United's trophy cabinet, and in 1995, a strong United side — though one lacking a recognised striker — went to Volgograd looking to correct that. They were also looking to improve on the previous season's miserable European campaign, in which they'd slumped out of the Champions League group stage behind Barcelona and IFK Gothenburg.
There were a few chances for both sides, but there were no goals. However, the clean sheet was a definite sign of improvement; the Independent felt that "United's performance augurs well for the return leg," and Alex Ferguson was also pleased:
It was a good result for us. We played well, particularly in the first half. It was only when we started to give the ball away in the second half that we started to have problems.
But there was the problem. That second half came after Roy Keane picked up an injury, which kept him out of the return leg. And once again — though presumably they'd didn't much enjoy it — United's home fans got the entertainment that the away lot had missed. The defence dissolved, and Rotor were two up in 20 minutes. Paul Scholes pulled one back on the hour, but even a late towering header from Peter Schmeichel could only salvage a draw. Through went the Russians on away goals. Out of Europe went United, ignominiously, again.
Torpedo Moscow 0-0 Manchester United, 16 September 1992
That's right, folks. Three games against Russians in Russia, and just the one goal. Obviously now that we've written that, United will ship seven tomorrow, but until then, let's enjoy looking back at another goalless couple of hours. Hooray!
Actually, there had been no goals back at Old Trafford this time either. So here, United failed to score in both normal time and extra time. Worse, they were more-or-less outplayed by, according to the Independent:
an unfashionable Moscow club ... young and short of experience at this level [but] capable, disciplined, quick and well organised. Tactically they matched some of the world's best-paid professionals over the 120 minutes of this tie creating the better chances ... Several of their youngsters ... should all be expecting lucrative offers from the West to leave their reported £4 a week jobs.
Not a great evening, then, and the penalty shootout didn't go precisely to plan either. Mark Hughes had been sent off just before the end of normal time — he picked up his second yellow for punting the ball towards the net after the whistle had gone, apparently in annoyance, the pillock — so United were a taker shy. And though Schmeichel saved the first penalty and Torpedo missed their second, United were equally profligate, and eventually Gary Pallister missed the crucial kick,
Still, while United were out of Europe embarrassingly early, there were silver linings. Ryan Giggs made his second European start and played pretty well. Bryan Robson and Paul Parker returned from injury. And United, who hadn't even bought Eric Cantona by this point, went on to win their first title in 26 years. So in the grander scheme of things, forget about Russia. It's never any fun.
Hang on. Didn't something else happen in Russia once?
Oh yes! We almost forgot!
The Busby Babe would like to formally deny any suggestions that this entire piece was only written as an excuse to post that last video.