The Champions League group stage finally comes to a close on Tuesday evening as Manchester United hosts CSKA Moscow at Old Trafford. United have led Group A from the outset, winning the first four matches before suffering defeat the last time out in Switzerland. That loss to FC Basel prevented the club from clinching an early passage to the knockout rounds, though they remain virtually assured of finishing atop their group.
United have 12 points through five matches, leading both Basel and Moscow by three points apiece. While this leaves the slightest possibility of both opponents drawing level with United if results go haywire this week, the club’s +8 GD keeps them as overwhelming favorites. To jump above the Red Devils, the Swiss champs must make up four goals, while Moscow sits even further back with a lowly -1 GD. Only a complete disaster could stop United from winning Group A.
And that’s something that just doesn’t happen at Old Trafford.
Manchester United still have a 100% record there this season and remain unbeaten on home soil in European competitions since 2013. On that occasion — a 2-1 reverse against Real Madrid — José Mourinho managed the Spanish giants and displayed rare modesty in his post-match assessment by declaring Sir Alex Ferguson’s United the better side. It’s quite unlikely that this CSKA Moscow team will match Madrid’s accomplishment.
Back in September, United made quick work of Moscow at the VEB Arena. The 4-1 scoreline reflected that dominance, as Mourinho’s men easily sliced through the opposing midfield and defense. In fairness to the Russian club, they enter this final Group A match on a strong run of form — unbeaten in six matches in all competitions, winning five of them. But United are no strangers to in-form opposition, as both Watford and Arsenal sported recent winning streaks before getting brushed aside.
With the all-important Manchester derby looming on Sunday and a spot in the Champions League knockout rounds all but guaranteed, this match offers José Mourinho an opportunity to rest some of his key players.
Nemanja Matić could certainly use a few more days to further recuperate from the muscular injury he suffered against Watford. He bravely rushed back for the Arsenal match, but definitely was not at his best. United will need Matić at full strength to slow down the rampant City attack, so expect to see him sidelined on Tuesday.
Replacing him just might be club captain Michael Carrick. The 36-year-old is reportedly targeting this game for his return from a cardiac ablation procedure. Carrick has been out of action since United’s 4-1 Carabao Cup victory over Burton Albion in September and will surely receive a rousing reception from the Old Trafford faithful if he can give it a go. No one wants to take unnecessary risks involving a heart ailment, so there’s still every chance that Ander Herrera steps in instead.
One midfielder not likely to miss out is Paul Pogba. After his red card at the Emirates for a tempestuous tackle on Hector Bellerin, Pogba will be suspended for the next three Premier League games. In the meantime, Mourinho might as well play him in any match that he’s available. United will have to dig deep to compensate for his upcoming enforced absence, but that’s a post-CSKA Moscow problem.
Based on a few recent creaky displays, the defense probably deserves a shakeup. Unfortunately, unless Phil Jones or Eric Bailly make a shock recovery (or the manager dusts off Axel Tuanzebe), there just aren’t enough available options to rotate the central defense. Any changes are much more likely to come on the edges, where both Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia may be in line for a well-deserved rest.
Manchester United have already crushed CSKA Moscow once this season, but must guard against taking the Russian opposition lightly. Not because of the microscopic chance that United drops from the Group A perch, but to maintain the spirit and confidence won at Arsenal.
Plus, all of the motivation lies on Moscow’s side. The visitors’ only hope is a lopsided win over United — and even that might not be enough to redeem its poor goal differential. Knowing that they face an all-out attack from the opening whistle, expect Mourinho to instruct his players to sit back, soak up the pressure, and hit Moscow on the counter.
Above all, the manager will demand a professional performance in a match that Manchester United have no business losing. The players must strike a balance between composure and complacency by taking advantage of CSKA Moscow’s desperation while keeping energy levels high ahead of the weekend’s marquee Mancunian matchup.