I received an email from a reader shortly after the UEFA Cup draw had been performed in Nyon. It was a one-liner. ‚..CSKA are a very good team. Good challenge for Villa.‚..
Good challenge, indeed. Impossible challenge? Maybe. Russian teams have excelled in this tournament for several years. And for good reason. The Russian Premier League has become one of the top divisions on the continent. According to UEFA‚..s latest ranking, it‚..s the sixth-best competition in European football. It outshines the leagues in Portugal, Scotland and Holland. If it keeps improving at the present rate, it will surpass the Bundesliga by summertime.
CSKA Moscow finished runners-up to champions Rubin Kazan in the recently completed domestic season. They kept a tight defense, allowing just 24 goals in 30 rounds while scoring 53, second only to Zenit St. Petersburg. Man for man, they match up well against Aston Villa. While Martin O‚..Neill will be viewing CSKA as a ‚..challenge,‚.. his counterpart, former Brazil international Zico, will see Villa as a team the Russians should beat.
Having just succeeded the lengendary Valery Gazzaev at Luzhniki Stadium, Zico will take over a side with five full Russian internationals in his defense. Ahead of Hiddink‚..s number-one, Igor Akinfeev, he will also have Yuri Zhirkov, Sergei Ignashevich and the Berezutskiy twins, Vasili and Aleksei. If O‚..Neill continues to deploy Gabriel Agbonlahor as his lone forward, he may run into problems against this sturdy backline.
Alan Dzagoev runs the show in the midfield for CSKA. Just 18-years-old, he is one of Europe‚..s up-and-coming talents and has already been linked to both Real Madrid and Chelsea. He finished the RPL season with eight goals, the highest-scoring CSKA player other than Vagner Love. For his efforts, he was named Russia‚..s Young Player of the Year.
And then there‚..s Vagner Love. The 24-year-old scored 20 league goals in 2008 and added another eight in four UEFA Cup Group Stage matches for good measure. O‚..Neill will not get away with sending Zat Knight onto the pitch to face the potent Brazilian. Love is quick and two-footed. As added incentive, he will view the tie with Villa as a chance to put himself in the shop window for English clubs.
Just how seriously O‚..Neill takes the showdown with CSKA will depend entirely on Villa‚..s performance over the Christmas schedule. In the next 10 days, they will visit both West Ham and Hull and host Arsenal. The latter match will be particularly intriguing. Currently ahead of the Gunners by a single point, the encounter could go a long way toward settling the battle for fourth place that has developed between the two.
It is a battle that O‚..Neill must do everything in his power to win. Arsenal‚..s persistent lack of consistency has thrown open the door to the Champions‚.. League, an opportunity that may not reappear for some time. Nothing, not even the allure of the UEFA Cup, should take precedence over this battle. Villa host Chelsea on the Saturday after CSKA‚..s visit to the West Midlands for the first leg of their series. That match, not the Wednesday encounter, must be O‚..Neill‚..s top priority.
Of course, Villa might be long out of the race for a top-four finish by late February. If so, the UEFA Cup will obviously take on some added meaning. But until then, and as long as they are contending for a Champions‚.. League berth, they must remain fully focused on the domestic schedule. There will be lots of UEFA Cups or Europa Leagues or whatever it‚..ll be called a year from now. But rarely has the road to the top four been as clear as it is now. It is an opportunity that must not be wasted.