"We get a quick first look at Moscow. Wide, incredibly empty streets, sidewalks full of hurrying shabby people, walking past dingy shops in dilapidated buildings. Monotonous rows of uninteresting apartments , concrete beehives which sometimes make an effort at beauty in ornamentation. But it is half-hearted, like the architecture of an institution..."
W.L. White's Report on the Russians may feel and read like a post-war spy thriller (it was published in 1945), but the intrepid players and supporters of Manchester City, setting foot on Russian soil for the first time, will testify that it is a step into the unknown even in today's world of instant access all areas.
Until a matter of days ago, even the venue for this Champions League clash between CSKA Moscow and City was in doubt. A rich combination of procrastination, disorganisation and stubbornness, meant that some stadiums were being dug up, while others were having their seats removed, while yet others had been hosting so many games, their turf was turning to porridge.
Even as we speak, Manuel Pellegrini has stated that, "if it rains the pitch is so bad, it might be called off...". It is grass, eroded to mud and bolstered with sand. City, thus, enter the fray blinking and rubbing their eyes, as they try to adapt to a climate of cold, of potential wet and of general organised chaos. Pellegrini will -- in among the ready-made excuses for a potential slip-up -- also be helping his cohorts remember that they face an absolutely crucial and perhaps season-defining match on Wednesday in the compact and draughty Khimki Arena.
- Report: Fernandinho concerned with pitch
Ever since the money began to roll into City's coffers, a heightened European profile has been one of the top priorities of the club's owners. Swift domestic success in the FA Cup and then the Premier League meant top level continental participation for the first time in four decades for the Blue side of Manchester and, for the last two seasons, City supporters have inhabited a weird wonderland, where the golden offspring of Asa Hartford and Mike Summerbee prance on the grand stages of continental Europe. Up to now, the effect has been to wake up from these reveries in wonderland with a bloody nose and soiled trousers, after a trail of setbacks left City listening to the loud tutting of football sages, but there are signs that Pellegrini is beginning to get to grips with the knotty question of how to go further.
There can be no doubt that the club has been aided this year with a kinder draw than on the two previous attempts. No doubt that Senor Pellegrni's European experience was brought in with this next step in mind. No doubt also that Bayern's performance at the Etihad showed everyone just how far there still is to travel, but -- despite this -- there remains real optimism that this year can see City venture forward into virgin territory after the Christmas break.
In order to do this, they must come away from Moscow without being defeated. CSKA know this too. They realise that second place in the group is up for grabs and that both protagonists are running through sticky early season form. City's away run has already seen them defeated at Cardiff and Villa, while CSKA have lost four of their last five games and came unstuck again at the weekend, losing 2-0 to Zenit. At the same time, City were at last working up a decent head of steam in an away game, passing West Ham to death in a more than convincing 3-1 victory.
City's history of Cup for Cock ups is beginning to fade. The recent European memories of Groclin and TNS, of Lokeren and Poznan will begin to fade too, joining more distant treks to Liege and Enschede, Coimbra and Bilbao from the days when there were three European trophies and not one of them in a league format. Those were true knock-out ties and the game in Moscow takes on a vague resemblance thereof, so important has it become.
City may be treading wet and slippery virgin turf as far as playing Russian sides are concerned, but several of the squad have played against CSKA, including Gael Clichy, Edin Dzeko, Alvaro Negredo and Jesus Navas, all while wearing the colours of previous employers. So, it is not completely into the unknown that City stride on Wednesday, but for those of us who have followed recent European fortunes (five away defeats out of six in the two Champions League seasons before this one), who followed the reappearance of the club in European competition after nearly three decades waiting (in Schalke and Hamburg, Thessaloniki and Kiev) and to those who can hark back even further to the original days of yore in Monchengladbach and Milan, Moscow marks an exciting new step on a route which could lead to places none of us have experienced in the long history of this grand old club.