This, and the next European outing at Old Trafford against PSV Eindhoven, is likely to decide whether United make it through to the last 16, so manager Louis van Gaal will be determined to see more cutting edge in the final third than he has in recent matches. The group is finely poised, with these two sides lying two points behind leaders Wolfsburg, while PSV prop up the table on three points.
While they did not get the win they wanted, United probably came away the happier following the draw in the return fixture in October. Neither team set the world alight, but the three-time winners of this competition were largely laboured in their attempts to hit back after going behind to rebound from a penalty kick. Fortunately, they had Anthony Martial to thank for a well-placed equaliser which eases the pressure on his side slightly coming into this one.
That said, defeat would leave United with plenty to do in the context of the group and recent performances have not been greatly encouraging. The 3-0 win over Everton on October 17 was hugely promising, but since then they have sunk back into their shell somewhat and have played out three successive goalless draws, all lacking in entertainment and devoid of any attacking spark from the Red Devils.
At present they are having to rely on Martial’s trickery and mazy runs to make something happen, but for all their possession in games United are not a difficult team to play against. Too often, van Gaal is having to resort to using Marouane Fellaini as a target man in order to try and force a victory, and while the Belgian is effective, it is a sign of the team’s attacking struggles that such a tactic is necessary.
It was no different at Crystal Palace on Saturday, where except for a spell in the first half they were perhaps fortunate to escape with a point. Wayne Rooney was again a peripheral figure and continues to be maligned, but he would be much more effective if those around him played with more tempo and incisiveness going forward.
It seems the captain is under pressure to perform in every game, but CSKA Moscow will aim to frustrate. Their two centre-backs are both extremely tough and will give little away, while in the shape of Ahmed Musa and Seydou Doumbia they have the ability to pose a major threat going forward. They are a decent side, but one which United should be capable of beating at home, but the pressure will be well and truly on should they fail.
Memphis Depay is still absent for the hosts along with Antonio Valencia. Fit again Ashley Young and central midfielder Michael Carrick will be pushing for recalls.