. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Spartak Downs Zenit to Join Alania in Playoff

A determined Spartak Moscow forced its way into a playoff for the Russian league title against Alania Vladikavkaz with a 2-1 victory over Zenit in the gloomy, smoky cauldron of St. Petersburg's Petrovsky Stadium on Sunday night.


Yegor Titov put the visitors ahead for the first time in the 73rd minute with a decisive 30-meter strike that curled past a floundering Roman Berezovsky in the Zenit goal. The win leaves Spartak tied at 72 points with Alania, which beat Lokomotiv Nizhny Novgorod 3-1 in their final game at Vladikavkaz.


The date and neutral venue for the playoff have yet to be set. If the two sides are still deadlocked after extra time, the title could be settled by a penalty shoot-out.


Zenit got off to a roaring start Sunday in the third minute when striker Igor Danilov gave local fans, who braved fog, drizzle, smoke, fire and the OMON, plenty to cheer about with a cleanly taken goal. Vladimir Kulik's speed down the right flank opened up the Spartak defense before Danilov ran on perfectly to Kulik's cross and buried the ball in the net first time.


The Zenit goal stunned Spartak into furious action, but a disciplined defensive performance from the home team denied the visitors any real scoring chances until well into the first half.


When the equalizer did come, it was handed to Spartak on a plate. Andrei Tikhonov curled a free kick from the right flank around Zenit's two-man wall and Berezovsky stumbled and tumbled his way into and under the flight of the ball, only managing to touch Tikhonov's strike on its way into the back of the net.


With captain and linchpin Ilya Tsymbalar out through injury, Spartak struggled to get their normal close passing game flowing in soggy and foggy conditions more suited to Zenit's long-ball style.


Zenit and Spartak fans from the above-capacity 25,000 crowd did their level best to make difficult playing conditions impossible, adding fireworks and bottles to the mist and icy rain.


A group of fans wearing blue Zenit hats and scarves and known as the Nevsky Front were at one point rushed by the OMON for throwing fireworks and bottles toward the field. On the other side of the stadium, a fireworks mishap shortly after Spartak hit the lead started a blaze in the area occupied by hard-core Spartak fans. A fire truck posted at the stadium quickly put out the fire.


When the Moscow team hit the front, they had the St. Petersburg team to thank as much as anyone. Zenit right back Maxim Bokov made one mistake in an otherwise impressive performance and his team paid for it dearly.


After trapping a Spartak through ball just outside his own penalty area, Bokov mishit a panicked clearance attempt straight to Titov, who ran forward a few steps before firing off the winning goal.


Zenit, promoted this season and eager for a win to finish in the top eight and clinch a $30,000 cash bonus from the city council, pressed hard following Titov's goal and were unlucky not to receive a penalty when Denis Zubko was taken down on a breakaway by two Spartak defenders.


Zenit players and fans complained long, loud and bitterly at the referee's refusal to give a spot kick. After Andrei Kondrashev was booked for dissent an enraged spectator rushed onto the field and grappled with the referee before stadium security and OMON officers intervened and escorted the intruder from the pitch.


Fans' protests went on after the end of the game and the referee had to be escorted from the field by police under a hail of bottles and cans -- some of them still full.


Zenit Director Stepan Krisevich continued to moan about the refereeing in a telephone interview Monday. "The referee's poor calls in the in the second half frustrated the team, swaying what was otherwise a game of two equal teams in Moscow's favor," he said.


(For other results, see Scorecard.)