The UEFA Champions League is home to the finest football on the planet, bar nothing. It's an exlusive club, in which the only members are the top teams from around the continent.
So naturally, the appeal is tremendous. From the Urals to the Pyrenees and everywhere in between, good football is appreciated everywhere.
Unfortunately, my favorite team is not one of the teams in the Champions League this season4. So up until now, I have been able to watch the matches without showing passionate support towards any team. Just being able to see a great match was all that I really cared about.
With that mindset, I turned on the match between CSKA Moscow and Manchester United, hoping to see more of the same excellence that the two sides showed a few weeks ago when they clashed at Luzhniki Stadium. Looking at the recent form of the Army Club, I was pleasantly content to watch as they fell out of the running for the Russian Premier League title.
Only 10 minutes in, Darren Fletcher destroys a shot but he unfortunately misses by a finger's length. CSKA survives for now. I laugh at the thought of what could be in a few hours.
Another chance for Manchester, but this time it's the veteran Michael Owen who can't beat Igor Akinfeev .
Except this time, it wasn't so funny. I couldn't help but applaud the man between the pipes, the man who will guide Russia in the playoff with Slovenia. He might play for the Red Devils in the future, but he will always be in goal for Russia.
CSKA starts to get forward now, applying pressure to the inexperienced United back line. But as soon as they get anything going, Tomas Necid gets booked for a handball. Looks accidental, but nonetheless he deserved a yellow card. So much for that opportunity, what a waste.
No, I spoke too soon.
Young star Alan Dzagoev steals a pass, streaks in alone, and makes a fool of United defender Wes Brown, but for a second it appears he ran himself out of space to the right of Edwin Van Der Sar. And just when it no longer seemed possible, the wonder kid flicks a shot over the Dutchman's shoulder.
Wait, what? They just scored?
How in the world did he pull that off? It was Arshavin-esque, just like the Arsenal forward's low-angle shot against Blackburn in March. Suddenly, the team name didn't seem to matter any more. Dzagoev is the future of Russian football and I couldn't help cheering for him.
But almost immediately, the lead was vanquished. Owen scores for United, but appears to be offside. Except it doesn't matter what it appears like, the referee Olegario Benquerenca rules that it's a good goal and we're all square at Old Trafford. Not much for Akinfeev to do about that, just a nice turn by Owen and excellent finishing as usual.
The tempo just rose about 80 BPM in the last few moments and the crowd finally is involved in the match.
No, this can't be.
Serbian international Milos Krasic takes a ball, barely onsides, runs around Van Der Sar in the box and fires the ball into an empty net while falling backwards. The announcer believes the goal is coming back for offsides, but no! It stands, and CSKA regains the lead through pure chaos!
That's three goals in just over five minutes. When the two sides scrapped at Luzhniki, nobody found the back of the net until mere minutes before stoppage time. Is Leonid Slutsky actually going to let this team run, as opposed to the very defensive-minded schemes he utilized with Krylia Sovetov?
As soon as it looks as if CSKA is going to trot to the lockers up a goal at the break, United produces a flurry of action just before the whistle. But Akinfeev is up to the task once more, denying Paul Scholes and Federico Macheda. If the Old Trafford faithful isn't becoming sick, watching him make save after save, they might be after halftime.
When the whistle blew, it was time to grab a snack. And think a little in the process.
Now I've been a passionate Zenit supporter my entire life. On 364 days of the year, I dislike everything that has to do with CSKA Moscow. Watching Vladimir Bystrov fire a rocket past Akinfeev to seal a 2-0 win for Zenit at the end of September was extremely satisfying to say the absolute least.
But not today. This one day of the year, I was supporting the Moscow-based rivals almost passionately. They were one of Russia's representatives in the Champions League and I've always been a fan of the "RPL" as well.
The second half begins, no substitutions from either side. That's interesting, but Sir Alex must feel confident coming out down by a goal.
That confidence shouldn't have lasted too long. Dzagoev earns a free kick and delivers a perfect ball. And look here, Vasili Berezutsky, the hulking center-back, is unmarked at the back post for an easy header.
Gooooooooooooooaaaaaaaaaaaal! 3-1, for CSKA? Most predictions I saw had that scoreline backwards. How does United forget about a man his size? He had a five yard personal space bubble to work with just to the left of Van Der Sar's post.
The Red Devils try to conjure up another quick response, but earn themselves a yellow in the process. The Stretford End believes they have themselves a penalty as Fletcher flops to the ground. Instead, he's carded for a dive. For one time, I agree with Benquerenca. He won't be a popular man for that choice but it is the right one.
As expected, here come the United reinforcements. Wayne Rooney and Patrice Evra are ready to make their appearance.
United still can't get much going, but an interesting substitution as Dzagoev comes off in favor of Carvalho. The Brazilian free-kick master can sure play offense, but I've never been sold on his defensive prowess. I'm not sure Slutsky is either but who else would he bring on?
And that's when Akinfeev goes from being just a keeper to something out of a video game at it's highest level of difficulty.
Neville, Owen, Rooney, Macheda, Rooney again, and Scholes.
Akinfeev robs them all within a five minute span as United's attack finally begins to take form.
Then, just when it looked like United had no chance of beating Akinfeev, Evgeni Aldonin's handball put the Red Devils in an ideal free-kick situation. Idiot. And no mistake this time as Scholes drills a header past Post No. 1 to make it 2-3. Nothing Akinfeev can do there, he was frozen in his tracks.
Four minutes added on.
Antonio Valencia, who won the match late for Manchester in Moscow, has done it again. Except this time, it involved much more luck than his first goal. His shot looked to be sailing into the crowd, not even remotely close to the net. But in an attempt to stop the shot, young defender Georgi Schennikov gets a head on it to deflect the ball at a painful angle, just out of the reach of Akinfeev.
3-3. What the hell.
And now Deividas Semberas is sent off for CSKA, although that was merited. Two yellows and his day is done. But somehow, the match is still going. Four minutes were added on and it went for over six.
Just like that, Manchester United finds a way to come back once again, booking their place in the knockout stage. On the other side, CSKA heads home with only a draw after leading by two with a 40 minutes to go.
They didn't win, but you couldn't tell that. This team that hasn't had much success recently in the Russian Premier League, all of a sudden looked right at home for the vast majority of the evening at Old Trafford. Once again, on one of the biggest stages in European football, a Russian team was not intimidated and came away with points from a world-class opponent.
At the moment, the future of Russian football looks very bright indeed.
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