At various points in time, CSKA Moscow have possessed one of the most potent strike forces outside of Europe’s traditional big leagues – England’s Premier League, La Liga and Serie A. Whilst the talismanic, occasionally controversial but always lethal Vagner Love thrilled crowds up and down the country with his impressive pace and deadly finishing, for years in Moscow he lacked a partner in crime, a fellow striker to share the goals if not the limelight.
In the summer of 2010, CSKA found that man. Arriving from the unlikely location of Young Boys in Switzerland, Seydou Doumbia arrived to a wealth of indifference in the Russian capital, his adoring public in-waiting unaware of the prodigious talent their club was about to acquire. Within weeks the Ivorian had them on his side, a barrage of goals in his debut season earning him a reputation of one of Europe’s finest strikers when on form, and a menacing presence even when out of it. Although it was eventually Zenit who would claim the league title, CSKA’s attacking play, with Love and Doumbia ahead of the likes of Tosic and Dzagoev, drew plenty of plaudits.
Although the issue of racism will always surround Russian football, Doumbia has answered the critics and the hooligans in the best possible way – on the field. A regular target of abuse in heated Moscow derbies, Doumbia’s record speaks for itself – 33 goals in 53 league games for the Army Men, after and equally impressive 50 in 64 for his Swiss team. Equally capable on the ground and in the air, possessing upper body strength as well as a blistering turn of pace, he has been a revelation in Russia in his one-man attack on the scoring charts.
In his CSKA career thus far, he has achieved more than simple domestic recognition. With his remarkable top flight goal scoring record in mind, both Francois Zahoui and now Sabri Lamouchi have recognised Doumbia as one of his nation’s finest, cementing him as starting striker and partner to the legendary Didier Drogba in the Ivory Coast’s attack. A return of two goals in 19 games suggests that he has not yet been able to translate his club form to the international game, but with the likes of Drogba, Gervinho and Salomon Kalou on the scene, there are plenty of talented forwards to share the goals around.
However, whilst Doumbia’s record at CSKA speaks for itself, there are those beginning to grow concerned with the Ivorian’s recent form. And with good reason – just three goals in his last ten league games may be perfectly acceptable to many players, but for a striker with one of the highest goal-to-game ratios in Europe, it is a far cry from his previous exploits. Doumbia finished the RPL season with an impressive two-in-three strike rate, but the overwhelming majority of those goals came before the lengthy winter break, leading many to pinpoint the exact cause of the Ivorian’s problem.
The issue, it would appear, is his partner. For the first 18 months of his life at CSKA, Doumbia acted as foil for Vagner Love, the blue-dreadlocked talisman equally feared by defenders and giving Doumbia the room necessary for him to make an impact on the game. With both Love and Doumbia on the field, CSKA’s creative midfielders always had two options for the passes, and the two were just as capable of finding each other as their playmaking team-mates. The understanding the pair developed bordered on the telepathic, and the goals return which came, dominated by Doumbia, was nonetheless impressive.
Over the winter however, Vagner Love finally called time on his CSKA career. His record, whilst never quite reaching the heights of Doumbia, was nevertheless impressive, 79 in 158 league games giving him the much sought-after one-in-two strike rate. Only once did he reach the coveted 20 goal mark in a domestic season, but in a league of just 30 games that is to be expected. More importantly, he was able to take his half of the goalscoring burden, and performed his role more than adequately.
With the outspoken striker now back in Brazil after many a transfer window of homesickness and wanderlust, that same burden now falls entirely on Doumbia’s shoulders. CSKA moved to replace their former talisman quickly during the transfer window, but the like-for-like replacement needed to allow for a seamless transition never arrived. Instead CSKA opted for the young, raw and incredibly pacy Ahmed Musa from Dutch club VVV Venlo – a signing with plenty of future potential given his lightning speed, but one who is yet to fit perfectly into Leonid Slutsky’s side. His pace has often been undone by the lack of a final ball or killer instinct in front of goal, just one goal in 11 CSKA appearances highlighting the obvious problem. Perhaps more at home on the wing than up front, Musa is not a direct replacement for Vagner Love.
That crucial difference has forced a change in CSKA’s tactical set-up, switching from two up front to one, and becoming more heavily reliant on the playmakers to get forward and join the attack. More importantly, it has placed the burden for goals wholly on Doumbia – not only is he now the focal point, opposition defenders are often able to free up two men to deal with him. If the Ivorian is the rediscover the form which made him one of Europe’s hottest properties and had Champions League contenders sending their scouts to watch him, growing into that lone striker role will be the next vital stage of his development.