By Eduard Nisenboim & Pavle Gognidze
As the Russian Premier-Liga season draws to a close, the only thing that is certain is that a Moscow club will win the title. Which one is anybody's guess as FC Spartak Moskva, FC Lokomotiv Moskva and PFC CSKA Moskva all have a chance.
Russian supporters have not witnessed such a gripping finale for years. Spartak have dominated the top-flight since the collapse of the Soviet Union, missing out on the title just once, to FC Alania Vladikavkaz in 1995. Alania won that lone title under current CSKA coach Valeri Gazzaev, and when they held Lokomotiv to a 1-1 draw on Tuesday they did their old coach - and indeed Spartak too - a huge favour.
Day of destiny
The fixture could have marked the end of Spartak's hopes of regaining the title had Lokomotiv won, but with all three title challengers now having two games left to play, Spartak - five points adrift of their rivals - were handed a major lifeline, especially since one of their final games is against CSKA.
Close finishes are a rarity in Russia. The closest of all was in 1996 when Spartak won the title after a play-off against Alania. The capital club trailed Alania in the table for the whole season, but caught up on the last day and won 2-1 through goals from Ilya Tsymbalar and Andrei Tikhonov in the play-off in St. Petersburg.
The 1997 title was a close call for Spartak too, and it took goals from Valeri Kechinov and Shirko in a 2-0 win at their only surviving title rivals SC Rotor Volgograd on the final day of the season to earn Oleg Romantsev's side the crown. For the following three seasons Spartak won the title with ease. Yuri Semin's Lokomotiv were their closest rivals but lost out because of their failure to win their key games against Spartak.
That changed this season, as Lokomotiv won 2-1 against Spartak at the start of the season to boost their title challenge. At times this year they were as far as ten points ahead of their fierce rivals. Meanwhile, Spartak's poor form since August cost them. Gazzaev's CSKA surged to second, and then to first place. The army team still lead the table, but Lokomotiv look better placed to take the title.
Lokomotiv face mid-table FC Zenit St. Petersburg and Dinamo in their remaining games, while CSKA have to face Spartak and the resilient FC Saturn Moskovskaya Oblast, who still have their sights on a fourth-placed finish. "I promise the fans that we will do our utmost to finally win the title," promised Lokomotiv goalkeeper Sergei Ovchinnikov. "
Every game will be a cup final for us." However, he is not the only one to be showing fighting spirit.
'We believe in ourselves'
"Everybody is giving the title to Lokomotiv already, but we will see what happens," said CSKA's Bosnia-Herzegovnian midfield player Elver Rahimic. "We believe in ourselves and we can win this championship." Even Spartak have not abandoned hope. "All three teams have chances to finish first," said Yegor Titov. "We could have had a better chance had we not dropped vital points lately. But we should win the last two games to finish as high as possible."
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