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Champions League Match Preview: Roma v CSKA Moscow

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At long last, Roma's return to the Champions League is upon us. Hosting CSKA Moscow, Francesco Totti and the rest of the Giallorossi return to Europe's most elite competition for the first time since 2011.

JOSE JORDAN/AFP/Getty Images

Chappians, Chamampians, Chupmians...Champions? Is that right, are we actually talking about the Champions League? That elite footballing tournament with the horrid theme music? The one sponsored by a grossly overrated Dutch beer? As Jonas rightly pointed out yesterday, it's been over three-and-a-half years since Roma played a living and breathing Champions League match, so you'll have to forgive our continual disbelief.

To put that lapse in perspective, the last time Roma played in the CL, some 42 months ago, this place didn't even exist, at least not in its current form. You weren't blindsided by my over/incorrect use of commas, Jonas'...well Jonasisms, Dhaw's obsession with hazelnut spreads, or Sam's lovely collection of Australian colloquialisms, many of which still fly right over my head.

Roma v.CSKA Moscow:September 17 20:45 CET, 14:45 EDT Stadio Olimpico Roma, Italia

However, if you take a trip through our Pre-Reformation archives, you'll see that Roma was indeed a regular fixture in the Champions League, but what can we expect from this Roma squad as they enter matchday one? What do we know about CSKA Moscow, and is Daniele De Rossi seriously still serving a suspension from 2011...grudge much, UEFA?

In case you weren't aware, Roma have fallen into Group E, the gruppo della morte. We know about Manchester City and Bayern Munich, they're each champions of their domestic leagues and have a combined worth of roughly $2.6 billion, but what about CSKA Moscow? What sort of threat do they pose? And what exactly does CSKA stand for?

Muscovites Worth Mentioning

First things first. Near as I can tell, CSKA means roughly Central Sports Club of the Army, Moscow. Given that they run the gamut of European sports, that makes sense. Acronyms aside, CSKA Moscow has, along with Zenit St Petersburg, dominated the Russian Premier League over the past several seasons, taking top honors in each of the last two campaigns.

However, despite their domestic success, the Champions League has not been kind to Russia's finest. Drawn against City and Munich last season, CSKA Moscow lost all three of their away fixtures in last year's group stage, though they have actually won their last two matches on Italian soil, a 2-1 victory over Inter Milan during the 2011-2012 group stage and a 3-0 blanking of Palermo during the 2010-2011 Europa League group stage. For their part, Roma has also won their past two matches against Russian competition, besting Lokomotiv in both legs of the 2001-2002 competiton.

But what about Roma and CSKA, is there any history there? Well, lucky you should ask. The Giallorossi and Krasno-sinie (red-blues) met once, way back in the 1991 UEFA Cup Winners' Cup, a horribly named tournament in which the two sides played to a 2-2 aggregate scoreline.

In the here and now, after seven weeks of play, CSKA sit six points behind Zenit St. Petersburg for the Premier League top spot and have been propelled by some surprising offensive performances from traditionally defensive players. CSKA's top domestic scorers thus far, Bebras Natcho and Roman Eremenko, are nominally listed as defensive and/or holding players.

Broadly speaking, CSKA lines up in a 4-2-3-1 that seeks to control possession through short, accurate passing. Given that they are third in both possession and passing percentage, you'd have to say job well done. Manager Leonid Slutsky's side also makes effective use of that possession, ranking second in chances created and third in shots per match, while conceding the fourth fewest shots per match.

CSKA is a disciplined side that more often than not accentuates the right flank, using off the ball runs from right winger Zoran Tosic to threaten the opposition, while the interchange between Eremenko, Alan Dzagoev, Ahmed Musa and Seydou Doumbia throughout the attacking third gives CSKA an extremely mobile and versatile attack.

Their order of the day is to maintain possession, pick apart opponents with short, precise passes and hope they can pick out a key pass, usually on the right flank. This, of course, leaves them vulnerable on the counter attack...

Roma: Rested and Ready To Run

While Rudi Garcia was adamant that there won't be "two Romas" this season, one for Europe one for Serie A, we can safely assume the rest afforded to Francesco Totti, Juan Iturbe and Gervinho over the weekend was with Wednesday's continental encounter in mind.

football formations

Given that Ashley Cole and Maicon played the full 90 over the weekend, and considering that Leandro Castan is still not fully fit, Roma may indeed go Greek tomorrow, with Roma's Hellenic trio of Jose Holebas, Vasilis Torosidis and Kostas Manolas joining Davide Astori along the backline. Sure, they haven't played together for Roma yet, but they were a fixture for Greece this summer, so that chemistry should translate rather easily.

We don't know much about Holebas yet, but we do know that the man can move. With CSKA's penchant for attacking down his side of the pitch, Holebas' ability to force turnovers will be crucial. However, if he can manage to disrupt CSKA's passing game, his speed will be absolutely essential to springing Roma's counter attack, particularly if he can distribute the ball quickly to Nainggolan, Francesco Totti and Gervinho.

As for the rest of that lineup, well, like we said, it was born to run. If Seydou Keita can provide enough defensive cover to disrupt CSKA's tiki-taka-esque passing in the final third, Roma should be able to hit CSKA on the counter at a furious pace.

Roma's depth was built precisely for this purpose, to outwit and outrun the opposition, regardless of the competition. Beyond simple nerves, the only thing we have to fear is fitness, after all, this is only Roma's third match of the season and Pjanic and Nainggolan have already logged some significant minutes. But if Garcia's man management over the weekend did the trick, Roma should be ready to run early and often.

Predictions

Rudi Garcia actually faced CSKA during his Lille days, besting the Moscow side 4-2 on aggregate, so he's at least tangentially familiar with their style. But that was three years ago, and in a match such as this, when the opponent is a virtual unknown, you rely on what you do best. For this Roma, that's countering. Roma's blinding speed and precision passing can undress the toughest of opponents, so look for Roma to exploit CSKA in the transition game, with Iturbe and Gervinho playing crucial roles.

If Roma stand a chance of advancing in this group, they must take six points from Group E's supposed small fish. For a club still earning its sea legs and assimilating several new faces, victory cannot be assumed. Roma must be sharp in this match, if they fall behind early, their entire Champions League campaign may be in doubt.