On Friday, ESPN UK provided subscribers with live coverage of Alania Vladikavkaz against Zenit St Petersburg in the Russian top flight, before airing the Chicago Fire-Real Salt Lake MLS match.
Both ties were similar – Luciano Spalletti’s Zenit top the Russian Premier League, while Real are Major League Soccer’s team to beat. In comparison, Alania and Chicago both linger in the lower echelons of their respective divisions.
Unsurprisingly, that aforementioned duo showed their lofty positions to be no coincidence, brushing aside their opponents by scorelines of 3-1 and 1-0 respectively.
Neither Vladikavkaz or the Fire appeared overwhelmingly blunt up top, yet defensive lapses proved the undoing of two teams in 4-4-1-1 systems.
Both sides accepted their underdogs roles pre-match, so therefore picked XIs capable of sitting and stifling in disciplined banks.
The four full backs rarely entered the final third, while the quartet of centre midfielders offered little in an attacking sense.
Chicago’s Wilman Conde normally operates in defence, and he flanked Logan Pause in the no-nonsense shutout task.
Alania’s midfielders demonstrated slightly more class (the set-piece-taking Gheorge Florescu reads the game very well indeed), but Aslan Mashukov had to be substituted before collecting a red card.
Two lone strikers were flanked by attacking midfielders rather than natural forwards, and hence from here, creativity was supposed to stem.
However, due to the omnipotence of Real Salt Lake’s Ned Grabavoy, Baggio Husidić was anonymous.
Thus, plans B (letting Marco Pappa run with the ball), C (long-diagonals out to Mike Banner), and D (corners for Steven Kinney’s towering headers) were eventually enacted.
None of these got Stefan Dimitrov into the game, but the more direct, strong, hungry, and canny Brian McBride showed his abilities from the bench.
Alania’s plan B was the long-diagonal to Stoyanov, but this tactic rarely connected.
Nonetheless, plan A looked effective, and only a 10-minute funny turn from goalkeeper Dmitri Khomich cost them the match.
Twenty-one-year-old Georgi Gabulov oozes class; think Dennis Bergkamp-cum-Zinedine Zidane, or, a comparison closer to home, Alan Dzagoev.
Blessed with the ability to make time and space on the ball all over the pitch, Alanskie Barsy‘s #8 can unlock any defence. To keep him quiet, Roman Shirokov regularly dropped deep.
The following day, I tuned into a Russian game again, CSKA versus Saturn.
The home side, shorn of Keisuke Honda, Miloš Krasić, Mark Gonzalez, and Chidi Odiah, looked sluggish. Dzagoev was his usual wizard-like self at least, albeit only in flashes.
The waspish Vadim Evseev hurriedly shut him down on a number of occasions, although even when space was found between the ruthlessly disciplined banks of Saturn’s 4-5, that lack of pace prevented a Kaka-esque carry, or, his feeding ball was slow in coming.
Through-balls to Guilherme’s lightening bursts, or subtle one-twos with Tomáš Necid bore no fruit, and his equalizer resulted mainly from a ‘keeping error.
Opting for a 2-3-2-1-2 system (with the full backs providing the width), CSKAs constant crossfield passing bordered on the criminal. Similarly, crosses were brashly returned back to the Moscow side by Aleksei Igonin.
The Inoplanetyane (‘Aliens’) played in a 4-5-1/4-3-2-1 system. Both their full backs sought to come forward and add to play rather than make it themselves.
With centre forward Dmitri Kirichenko told to lay off everything first time, the silky skills of Andrei Karyaka and tirelessness of Aleksei Ivanov were utilised. Dmitri Kirichenko also offered menace as a fox-in-the-box for the plethora or right flank whip-ins.
Igor Akinfeev made a hash of several of these balls in and efforts on goal, conceding corner kicks that Saturn made incisive and well-drilled darts on.