Tottenham Hotspur v CSKA Moscow
Wednesday December 7, 19:45
Live on BT Sport
The unravelling of Tottenham's long-awaited return to the big time has been painful to watch. Whatever the truth of the reasons behind relocating the team's home games to Wembley, it has proven to be a catastrophic misjudgment. Both Monaco and Bayer Leverkusen gleefully relished the chance to play at the home of English football, and duly sent Spurs crashing to two "home" defeats.
The challenge for Tottenham and their coach Mauricio Pochettino is to learn from the mistakes made in this competition, and try to qualify for the Champions League for next season. Pochettino has pointedly and publicly claimed that he needs a stronger squad to truly make an impact at European football's top table, and he may well be right, but we'll never know what would have happened if Monaco and Leverkusen had been forced to deal with the raucous atmosphere at White Hart Lane.
So now all that remains is to avoid defeat against CSKA Moscow, and therefore book a place in the Europa League. I'm sure there are Spurs fans who believe it would be better to miss out on Europe's secondary competition, but frankly that's loser talk. If a club the size of Tottenham can't cope with playing twice a week, then there's something seriously amiss. Pochettino certainly doesn't share that view - he's already planning for the Europa League, insisting that Spurs will keep playing at Wembley in a bid to make it a home from home.
Spurs won't field their strongest line-up, and it seems highly unlikely that the returning Toby Aldeweireld will be risked. Ben Davies, Erik Lamela and Vincent Janssen are all sidelined. Young talents like Josh Onomah, Harry Winks and Cameron Carter-Vickers could all be given a chance to shine, while summer signing Moussa Sissoko may be handed an opportunity to prove his worth to a coach that has been distinctly underwhelmed by his efforts so far.
The Russian champions will go into their winter break eight points adrift of city rivals Spartak in the Premier League, so it would be a timely boost to secure European football beyond Christmas. However, the statistics don't make for great reading for CSKA fans.
Firstly, Opta tell us CSKA have only won one of their six away games against English sides. Normally, I dismiss country-vs-country stats, but that is a poor return by any standards. More telling is the fact that Leonid Slutsky's side have lost five of their last six away games, and the other was a narrow win at relegation candidates Arsenal Tula.
CSKA lost 1-0 at home to Spurs in the Russian capital, and the loss of gifted midfielder Roman Eremenko to a two-year ban for using cocaine is a big blow. Enterprising Brazilian right-back Mario Fernandes isn't fully fit but could still start, will long-serving custodian Igor Aknifeev is looking for his first UCL clean sheet in a decade, although he has just broken the legendary Rinat Dasaev's record for most shut-outs by a Russian keeper.
Spurs are trading at 1.564/7 to win this, but I must admit that's a price that doesn't really excite me. Spurs have lost both of their games at Wembley, and while CSKA's recent road record is poor, they did pick up a decent 2-2 draw at Bayer Leverkusen.
Tottenham will have been boosted by the weekend's comprehensive 5-0 drubbing of Swansea, but it's worth remembering that was only their second victory in the last 11 games.
Over/Under 2.5 Goals
If Spurs make a decent start and go ahead early on (more on that prospect later), this could become a rather anaemic affair. Eight of Tottenham's last 13 outings in all competitions have featured fewer than three goals, while CSKA have scored just three goals in their last six away matches.
There was only one goal in the reverse fixture, and I'm leaning towards backing Under 2.5 Goals at 2.111/10.
CSKA have been dreadful starters in this competition - in three of their five group games, they have been behind inside the opening 16 minutes. In three of their last five away games, they have been trailing at half-time.
Spurs will be on a high after crushing Swansea, and even though they may well be a lot more relaxed after the break, I'm expecting a flying start similar to what they managed at Chelsea before slipping to an unwarranted defeat at Stamford Bridge.
Back Spurs in the Half Time market at 2.0811/10