When Zenit St. Petersburg take on CSKA Moscow in the derby ironically branded as El Clasikov, it is usually a fight for the championship. This season however, the Army Men from Moscow have been below their usual standards, and are only sitting third in the league, eight points behind arch rivals Spartak Moscow, and three behind Zenit. Saturday’s game, the biggest this weekend, is therefore instead a six-pointer in the fight for Champions League qualification.
While CSKA are usually praised for their stability and continuity, the Red-Blues have gone through some major changes this winter. Head coach Leonid Slutsky has left the club after seven years on the sideline, and been replaced with Belarussian prodigy, and former CSKA assistant, Viktor Goncharenko. Goncharenko made his name with BATE Borisov in his home country, with whom he won several domestic titles, while also qualifying for the Champions League, as the youngest head coach ever, where they beat Bayern Munich.
The expectations were understandably big when Goncharenko moved to Russia and Kuban Krasnodar in 2013, but he failed to live up to them and was sacked after a year. Last season, he led Ural Yekaterinburg for six games before leaving the club under mysterious circumstances, after which he was hired to work as assistant to Slutsky at CSKA.
Before this season, he left CSKA, to once again stand on his own feet, and took over FC Ufa, with whom he worked wonders. When he left them after the first half of the season, the small side were 8th in the league and in the cup quarterfinals. Despite working with one of the smallest budgets in the league, Goncharenko put together a side that managed to beat both Lokomotiv and Spartak in Moscow while also drawing at home against Zenit.
After finally proving himself in the Russian Football Premier League with Ufa, it was little surprise that Goncharenko was handpicked to replace his former mentor at CSKA.
The Belarusian hasn’t brought major changes with him yet though. Despite the poor fall, CSKA only signed Nigerian striker Aaron Olanare this winter, while strikers Lacina Traoré and Carlos Strandberg have both left the club.
Olanare played on loan at the club last spring, but got severely injured in the cup final against Zenit, in which he scored, meaning CSKA opted not to purchase him permanently as the loan ran out.
The Red-Blues have however been strengthened by the return of a couple of loanees. Vitinho returns from a long stint in Brazil, and is expected to finally break through this season. The same can be said about central defender Viktor Vasin, who played under Goncharenko at Ufa in the fall. Vasin has been on the books for ages, but Slutsky never looked his way.
In the friendlies, CSKA have experimented with a 5-3-2/3-5-2 formation, depending on how you see the roles of the wingbacks, which seems to suit the squad well. In fact, CSKA have gone through their ten friendlies this winter unbeaten, winning eight and only drawing twice.