Champions League Group Stage MD 02: Moscow vs. Bayern
After several years away from the Champions League, last season Lokomotive Moscow managed to qualify directly for the Champions League for the third time in a row already. But in neither of the three attempts they managed to make it past the group stage. They achieved this feat for the first and last time in the 2003/04 season, although the year before they managed to reach the second group stage, the phase before the quarter-finals, which still existed at the time.
Apart from that, the club’s greatest international successes date back to 1998 and 1999: Both times the Russians reached the semi-finals of the European Cup Winners’ Cup. First they were clearly beaten 3-1 over two legs by VfB Stuttgart, and one year later Lazio was the end of the line – after a 1-1 draw over two games on away goals.
Nationally, Lokomotiv Moscow never consistently has been counted among the top teams of the league. Apart from the three championships in 2002, 2004, and 2018, they mostly finished in a drab midfield position at the end of the season in this millennium. This season, too, they have already lost touch to the top of the table again. After a very mediocre start to the season, they have just begun to find their rhythm over recent weeks.
Four wins from the last four league games before last weekend are testament to their rising form. Among them wasa narrow 1-0 victory over city rivals and championship hopefuls ZSKA Moscow. But Saturday saw a bitter 2-1 defeat at home to FC Rotor Wolgo, who are currently placed second bottom in the league standings.
Most of Lokomotiv’s players will probably not be very well known in Germany. The now 34-year-old central defender Vedran Ćorluka once played for Manchester City and Tottenham and was once loaned out to Leverkusen before moving to Moscow (2012).
Moreover, the name Grzegorz Krychowiak could sound familiar to some. Between 2014 and 2016 he played for FC Sevilla, followed by a year with Paris Saint-Germain. With his 30 years and the experience he gained from playing for such top clubs, he is one of the most important players at Lokomotiv Moscow.
Many people might still remember the Portuguese striker Éder from the 2016 European Championship, where he scored the decisive goal in the final against France. The robust attacker is always good for a goal, even in Moscow. He scored the important 1-0 header against Salzburg last week in a 2-2 draw.
In addition, there are a few more names that the average fan might have noticed here and there. This can certainly be seen as representative of a broader development in Russian football. In the middle of the last decade, the number of minutes of foreign players in the Primier Liga dropped significantly. From once markedly more than 50% it has meanwhile dropped to less than 40% for the first time in many years.
The times when Russian football seemed to be on an artificial rise thanks to generous investors are long gone. Nowadays foreign players are much less likely to come to Russia than perhaps only ten years ago. As a result, some clubs find it difficult to consistently renew themselves. Lokomotiv Moscow is the second oldest team in the league with an average age of 28.
And yet their football is anything but old-fashioned. Coach Marko Nikolic’s team puts up a very strong defense on good days. From a very compact 4-4-2 formation, the Russians manage to keep the central spaces very tight and try to score goals by quick counter-attacks in transition after winning the ball.
Against Salzburg, however, they also showed that they can play a good ball in possession. With their directness and quick attacks, they could also ask dangerous questions of Bayern.
However, they have significant problems in keeping a compact shape in possession. Often Lok try to put long balls into the final third and then go for the second or even third ball. If this works, they often manage to create a chance. But as soon as they lose the ball, the route for the opponent to wade through their midfield unopposed is wide open.
Against Bayern, the Russians are unlikely to take this level of risk. But Bayern could take advantage of another weakness: When Moscow don’t park the bus at their own penalty area but try to push up occasionally, there will be momentary spaces between the two defensive and midfield lines for Bayern to exploit.
Lokomotiv never quite succeed in keeping the compactness for all of 90 minutes. When teams like Bayern keep moving the ball and opposition all the time, holes in their shape will invariably appear.
There is no question that Bayern are the clear favourites. It will be key for them how the players will cope with the long journey and how much their rhythm suffers from a possible rotation. However, if the team plays as concentrated and patiently as it did against Atlético Madrid, Moscow should not be too much of a hurdle.
But history has shown that many great teams have stumbled in Eastern Europe. Moscow’s aggressive and (mostly) compact game against the ball could be a problem for Bayern if they do not step out of the plane sufficiently concentrated.
Kick-off is tonight at 6:55 German time.