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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Spartak Downs Alania in Tense Title Finish

ST. PETERSBURG -- Two shining moments of skill and fortune allowed Spartak Moscow to wrest back the Russian championship from defending champion Alania Vladikavkaz 2-1 in the "golden game" playoff held in the freezing gloom of St. Petersburg's Petrovsky Stadium.


Returning Moscow captain Ilya Tsymbalar provided the first of these moments in the 27th minute with a goal that so stunned the opposing team that they were unable to regroup until the second half.


With time running out and Alania pressing ever harder for an equalizer, it was the turn of Russian Footballer of the Year Andrei Tikhonov to put his team two ahead with a shatteringly audacious strike eight minutes from time.


The defending titleholders refused to surrender their crown without a fight, getting a goal back in the 85th minute and coming perilously close to taking the game into extra time with wave after wave of attack in the final moments.


In front of a capacity crowd of 25,000, Spartak was always more composed than their opponents, who never looked fully at ease in the Petrovsky Stadium cauldron.


"This is a very emotional moment for us now," said Spartak coach Georgy Yartsev, "We were playing against champions and it was a very difficult match."


Both teams began the first playoff game in 26 years nervously, perhaps overawed by the occasion. Alania were the first team to settle and they began to look more and more threatening, especially down the right flank.


The game was still delicately poised in the 27th minute, when Tsymbalar altered the whole complexion of the game, orchestrating the goal of the season.


Seizing on a loose ball just inside the Alania half, the Spartak captain first-timed the ball back over his right shoulder in a looping through-ball for unmarked left half Dmitry Alenichev to run onto.


Tsymbalar immediately turned and sprinted for the Alania goal as Alenichev closed on the ball out on the left, hitting a curving first-touch cross that dropped into the racing Tsymbalar's path, and which he deftly tucked behind advancing goalkeeper Dmitry Kramarenko into the left-hand corner of the net.


Spartak continued to dominate early in the second half, but a determined Alania fought hard to get themselves back in the match.


Two-thirds of the way into the second half, Spartak's Sergey Gorlukovich was booked after bringing down Bakhba Tedeyev just outside the penalty area when Tedeyev had a clear run on goal.


Alania players, infuriated at referee Taras Bezubyak's decision not to send Gorlukovich off, protested vigorously, with Anatoly Kanishchev getting a yellow card for dissent.


Tikhonov gave Spartak a 2-0 cushion while his opponents were still fuming, breaking down the left flank and hammering the ball through Kramarenko, who was caught out of position expecting Tikhonov to cross the ball.


The ball skidded on the wet turf, hit the right post and bounced in. The ever modest Tikhonov put the goal down to luck, saying: "I got a lucky strike on the ball and I was fortunate that the goalie made a mistake."


With five minutes left, Alania's Anatoly Kanishchev brought his team back in the game with a shot from just inside the penalty area that ricocheted off a Spartak defender past goalie Alexander Filimonov.


Alania urgently pressed forward in the closing minutes, but were unable to grab a last minute equalizer despite several good chances. Nazim Suleimanov had the best of these when the ball came to him 10 meters out and he completely missed a nervous looking attempted volley.


As Alania lined up for yet another in a series of corner kicks in the final seconds, referee Bezubyak blew time sending Spartak fans into ecstatic celebrations.


In contrast to the Spartak-Zenit game two weeks ago that saw bottles thrown and fires started, the crowd was impeccably behaved, perhaps apprehensive of provoking the 1,600 police and Interior Ministry troops present at the game.