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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Spartak, Alania Invade St. Pete to Decide Title

ST. PETERSBURG -- St. Petersburg soccer fans are drooling in anticipation of Saturday's sellout game between Spartak Moscow and Alania Vladikavkaz to determine the Russian championship.


While Spartak may glean some slight advantage from returning to a venue that, as well as being closer to home, is the scene of the emotional last-round 2-1 win over local team Zenit that set up Saturday's playoff, commentators and fans expect a desperately tight struggle.


Many of the Russian premier league's brightest stars will grace the Petrovsky Stadium when the game kicks off at 5 p.m. as current champion Alania fights to keep the championship title from Spartak. Tickets for the game sold out by 5 p.m. on Thursday..


The daily newspaper Sport Express estimated that, in all, 5,000 Spartak fans would make the trip north. Alania head coach Valery Gazaev estimated that 1,000 to 1,500 Vladikavkaz fans would be at the game.


"Spartak is in a better position to gain an advantage by having a lot of fans," he said. "However, I hope we will get the support of the Petersburg fans."


Several players from both teams kept busy this week playing for various national teams in World Cup '98 qualifying matches. Spartak's Andrei Tikhonov shone in Russia's 4-0 win against Luxembourg in a European Group 4 World Cup qualifier.


Although Spartak won the championship three straight years from 1992 to 1994, this year's team is a young one. Most of the stars from past teams left to play in the West, primarily in the Spanish Premier League.


Spartak has been heartened by the return from injury of team captain and main playmaker Ilya Tsymbalar, who came third behind Tikhonov in player-of-the-year voting. Another players to watch for is 20-year-old midfielder Yegor Titov, who blasted home the winner against Zenit two weeks ago.


Alania were relieved that the team's numerous internationals got through the week without mishap. The most important thing is that all seven players returned to Vladikavkaz without any injuries, Alania coach Valery Gazaev was quoted by Sport Express as saying.


Alania will be relying on the brilliance of strikers Nazim Suleimanov and Anatoly Kanishchev for firepower.


At the back, fullback Murtaz Sheliya, sweeper Omari Tetradze and goalkeeper Dmitry Kramerenko will hope to keep Tikhonov, Titov and co quiet.


Should the game end in a draw, a penalty shoot-out will take place to determine the champion. The last time a title decider was needed was in 1970, when CSKA Moscow defeated Dinamo Moscow 4-3 to win the Soviet Championship.


St Petersburg's Taras Bezubyak, a FIFA international referee since 1992, will be refereeing the match.


"I don't have a good or nice character," Bezubyak said on NTV's program "Futbolny Klub." "People have different characters in life, but you can't let them interfere with your function on the field."


Petrovsky Stadium officials decided that you also can't let drunk fans interfere with the referee's function on the field either. Stadium Director Bagdan Agonov confirmed Thursday that 1,600 police and Interior Ministry troops will be on duty during the game. Zenit was fined 5 million rubles ($1,000) when a drunk fan ran on the field and attacked the referee in the Spartak-Zenit game.


A further 10 police sniffer dog units will be at the ground Saturday to check for drugs, the stadium chief added.


ST PETERSBURG, Russia -- Unprecedented security measures are being taken for Saturday's Russian League decider between the soccer aristocrats of Spartak Moscow and the upstart defending champions from the Caucasus, Alania Vladikavkaz.


For the first time in a quarter of a century, the title will be decided by a single, do-or-die playoff after both sides finished the season level on points. The Russian championship, like its Soviet predecessor, takes no account of goal difference.


Thousands of fans from Moscow and the turbulent autonomous region of North Ossetia, which borders rebel Chechnya, have descended on neutral St. Petersburg for the "Battle on the Baltic".


Mindful of an upsurge in soccer hooliganism, thousands of police will be on hand to search the sell-out crowd at the Petrovsky Stadium with metal detectors.


Bottles are banned, sniffer dogs will hunt for explosives and, unusually for Russia, rival fans will be segregated.


Stadium Director Bagdan Agonov confirmed Thursday that 1,600 police and OMON will be on duty during the game.


A further 10 police sniffer dog units will be at the ground Saturday to check for drugs, the stadium chief added.


Crowd trouble marred Spartak's final match of the season -- at the Petrovsky ground -- when disgruntled Zenit St Petersburg fans hurled bottles and cans at the referee after the Moscow side came from behind to clinch a playoff place with a 2-1 win. Zenit was fined 5 million rubles ($1,000) for the incident.


Tickets for the championship game sold out by 5 p.m. Thursday, after going on sale Wednesday afternoon.


A total of 4,000 tickets were reserved by stadium officials for excursion packages sold to Spartak and Alania fans. Daily newspaper Sport Express estimated that in all, 5,000 Spartak fans would make the trip north. Alania Head Coach Valery Gazaev estimated that 1,000 to 1,500 Vladikavkaz fans would be at the game.


"Spartak is in a better position to gain an advantage by having a lot of fans," he said. "However, I hope we will get the support of the Petersburg fans."


The only two clubs to have won the post-Soviet Russian League will go to the finish in a clash of styles and traditions that could end up being settled on penalties.


"The chances of winning? I'd say it's 50-50," Spartak midfielder Dmitry Alenichev said.


The precedent for thrills is there.


The second and last time the Soviet League needed a playoff, in 1970, CSKA Moscow took city rivals Dynamo to a replay. And then scored three times in the last 20 minutes to win 4-3.


Spartak, 12 times Soviet champions and winners of the first three Russian titles from 1992 to 1994, are the best supported of the Big Five Moscow teams, partly thanks to a history of independence from Soviet institutions like the army or KGB.


Big money, and coach Georgy Yartsev's commitment to skill and attack, has brought some of Russia's finest young players to Spartak, who reached last year's European Cup quarterfinals.


The lure of Western Europe has deprived Yartsev of stars like Viktor Onopko, Yuri Nikiforov and Sergei Yuran. Influential midfielder Valery Kechinov will miss the playoff through injury.


But playmaker Ilya Tsymbalar, nearly recovered from knee trouble, and top-scoring winger Andrei Tikhonov are in the side.


Alania coach Valery Gazzayev, who led the attack for Moscow's Dynamo and Lokomotiv in the late 1970s when Yartsev spearheaded the Spartak forward line, has transformed Alania from provincial also-rans to champions in the past three years.


Although it has been a long hard season for both title rivals, Gazzayev insisted: "We should have enough strength for the decider."


(Reuters, MT)