Manchester City should have been ready for Seydou Doumbia. They had seen what the striker was capable of last November, when he scored twice for CSKA Moscow in their 5-2 defeat at the Etihad. For the first goal, he took advantage of some lax defending before shimmying around Costel Pantilimon.
Doumbia’s second came from a penalty which he had earned by bamboozling Gael Clichy.
The weaknesses he exposed in City’s defence felt insignificant that night, dwarfed by the English club’s superiority at the other end of the pitch. This season, it has been a different story. It was Doumbia’s close-range prod that sparked CSKA’s recovery from a goal down to draw with City in Moscow. Two weeks later, he scored both goals in the Russians’ stunning 2-1 victory in the return game.
Unlike City, CSKA had learned from last season’s encounters. “We have played City four times now in two years and we know they are going to give us space,” said midfielder Pontus Wernbloom afterwards. “We know Doumbia is faster than them and if we just get the first pass away when they press us, we know we can counter.”
The question now is whether CSKA have been similarly successful in identifying Roma’s weaknesses. Crushed 5-1 at the Stadio Olimpico in their opening Group E fixture, Leonid Slutsky’s team had seemed destined for a quick exit from this year’s competition. Instead, they arrive at Tuesday’s return fixture in control of their own destiny. Level with Roma on four points, CSKA can guarantee progress to the last 16 by beating the Italians and then drawing with already-qualified Bayern Munich.
Their prospects of achieving that target rest in great part on Doumbia’s shoulders. The only true striker in the CSKA squad, he does not seem to struggle with the burden of goal-scoring responsibility. Since joining in 2010, he has found the net 83 times in 125 games. His Champions League record is even more impressive, with 10 goals in 11 appearances.
Blessed with brilliant pace, but even better acceleration over his first five yards, he finds the spaces behind defenders with ease. And when he does have the ball at his feet, he is the antithesis of City - entirely unpredictable.
“He often starts moves that are downright illogical,” reflected Slutsky during Doumbia’s early days at CSKA. “He would go into defenders, putting himself into situations you just can’t get out of – but he does get out. Doumbia is a real virtuoso, able to get past players who can’t understand his intentions.”
It is a trait Doumbia shares with his Roma counterpart and fellow Ivorian, Gervinho. They have known each other for half their lives, since playing together at the Jean Marc Guillo Academy in Abidjan. That was a difficult time for Doumbia, who never felt entirely welcome. His personal website carries a note from Olivier Koutoua, chairman of his boyhood club, Conservatoire Inter FC, claiming that, “Except Gervinho, the others rejected him.”
No matter. Doumbia set out on his own path – one that took him to Kashiwa Reysol in Japan at just 18. The culture shock was huge, and to start, the football did not go well. But Doumbia persisted. He had overcome greater hardships in his life, growing up in a family that could not always put food on the table. As a child he used to skip school and sell handkerchiefs to raise money to eat.
Loaned out to Tokushima Vortis, Doumbia’s form improved. He got in touch with Thierry Doubai, a friend playing for Young Boys. Between them, they persuaded the Swiss club to take a chance on him in 2008. Doumbia would emerge as the Super League’s top scorer in each of the next two seasons.
Young Boys had paid just €130,000 to acquire him, but cashed in handsomely when they sold him to CSKA for €10m in 2010. The Russians stand to generate a healthy profit on that sum, too, if speculation of a Premier League move comes to fruition in the next 12 months.
For now, Doumbia is happy to be scoring goals for CSKA and representing his country after briefly retiring from international football when he was overlooked for the World Cup by the then-Ivory Coast manager Sabri Lamouchi.
Roma swept CSKA away so emphatically at the Olimpico, that Doumbia never had a chance to influence proceedings. A repeat of that lopsided encounter seems unlikely in Moscow. Slutsky’s team have shown they know how to learn lessons in defeat. Will Roma have learned more than City did in victory?