You wouldn’t know it from their coach’s glum demeanour, but the army side are marching towards the Russian league title
An army side, you might think, would be better equipped for a long march than most, but it may be that the four-point lead CSKA Moscow enjoy as the Russian season takes its summer break is not quite as convincing as it looks, despite their game in hand.
For one thing, the usual cliches about marathons and sprints do not apply here. This season the Russian league isn’t a marathon, it’s even longer than that. The transition from a spring-autumn calendar to autumn-spring means that, for this season only, each team will play every other team three times. Sixteen games into the season (15 if you’re CSKA or Volga Nizhny Novgorod), there is still a year to go.
And for another thing, there are major doubts about the futures of at least two of CSKA’s key personnel.
Leonid Slutsky doesn’t seem to enjoy being
a football manager much. His playing career – he was a goalkeeper for Zvezda Gorodishche – came to an end when he was 19, when he fell out of a tree while trying to rescue a cat. Now 40, he enjoyed a rapid rise as a coach, from Uralan Elista to FK Moskva to Krylya Sovetov, before he was appointed as Juande Ramos’s successor at CSKA in 2009. He has overseen a gradual improvement, taking them to the quarter-finals of the Champions League in 2009, before this assault on the title.
On the touchline, Slutsky is neither a ranter and a raver nor an unmoving stoic. Rather, he rocks backwards and forwards, looking nervous and, frankly, a little unwell. Although he is a tactical tinkerer, suggesting significant preparatory work, he often seems to have been surprised by the weather. He has appeared on the bench, surrounded by piles of snow, wearing a shirt and an unbuttoned coat. On Sunday, in the midsummer heat of Perm, he wore a shirt and a sports jacket. The impression he gives is that the agony of watching his team play creates a microclimate around him. Whatever the weather, he seems perpetually covered in a sheen of sweat. He is the anti-Alastair Cook. But he does seem exceptionally good at what he does.
CSKA were lucky to be awarded a 3-0 win for their away game against Zenit, the match having finished 1-1 before it was realised that Zenit had failed to comply with a regulation that requires at least one Russian born after 1990 in each matchday squad. That aside, they have been comfortably the best team.
They have won eight and drawn three of their past 11 matches and they have lost only once in the league. Recently, there has been a splendid purposefulness about them. A 3-1 win against Lokomotiv last week was far more emphatic than the scoreline suggests, while Sunday’s 2-0 victory in Perm, a ground at which CSKA do not have the best of records, was so comfortable that were it not for the fact that Slutsky so clearly did, you would say CSKA barely broke sweat. After Keisuke Honda had laid in Seydou Doumbia to score the opener with a tremendously crisp finish, after eight minutes, it was simply a case of holding Amkar at arm’s length until Alan Dzagoev teed up Doumbia to finish the game off with a deft lob late on.
Within that minimalism, though, there is perhaps cause for concern, not least because Dzagoev and Honda could leave. Early in the season, it seemed that the two could not play together – Honda let it be known that he wasn’t happy at being used on the left.