By Pavle Gognidze
PFC CSKA Moskva and FC Lokomotiv Moskva will go head to head at a sold-out Dinamo stadium on Thursday for the right to be declared the best in Russia.
The city rivals are meeting in what Muscovites are calling the 'golden match', a play-off to determine the champions, after finishing level during the regular season. Both earned 66 points and are now one game away from their first Russian title, as perennial winners FC Spartak Moskva, who have taken top spot every year since 1992 with the exception of 1995, could only finish third this time around.
CSKA coach Valeri Gazzaev will have experience on his side at the Dinamo stadium, the neutral venue chosen to stage the game which could go to extra time and penalties. Not only did he mastermind that sole non-Spartak title success as coach of FC Alania Vladikavkaz, but, the next year, he also took part in the first play-off of the post-Soviet era.
Unfortunately on that occasion in St. Petersburg, Gazzaev's men lost the 'golden match' 2-1 to Spartak. Two of the key figures in that match, Spartak's Vadim Evseev and Alania's Igor Yanovsky, will do battle again on Thursday as they now represent Lokomotiv and CSKA respectively. Both are in form and will definitely play in a match that all of Russia is talking about.
Both teams have full squads to call upon after having key players held back from the week's round of UEFA EURO 2004™ qualifiers and friendly matches. CSKA have Latvian Juris Laizans, Azerbaijan goalkeeper Dmitri Kramarenko and Ukrainian Bogdan Shershun while Lokomotiv have been boosted after defender Oleg Pashinin was cleared to play despite a suspension during the regular season.
Lokomotiv are only concerned about the fitness of Russia forward Ruslan Pimenov, who has been struggling with a hip injury but he is determined to appear. "
I am feeling all right, it is not too painful, and I hope [Lokomotiv coach] Yuri Semin will give me a chance," he said.
With the teams virtually at full strength, the clubs are looking for the slightest psychological edge to give them the advantage. Lokomotiv would seem to have the upper hand having earned four points against CSKA from a 0-0 draw and a 1-0 victory. CSKA goalkeeper Ruslan Nigmatullin said: "It is no secret that Lokomotiv has an excellent defence."
But when it comes to the venue, Lokomotiv captain Dmitri Loskov, who scored the winner against CSKA in July, seems to think the stadium will suit their rivals. "The pitch is quite good at Dinamo, but it is too soft," he said. "This will favor CSKA, who are a more athletic side than us."
'It is a lottery'
There seems to be little to choose between them, a point that players from both sides acknowledge. Lokomotiv defender Dmitri Sennikov said: "It is impossible to talk about odds in this one. The team that will be cold-headed and yet aggressive will win." While CSKA captain Sergei Semak said: "It is a lottery.
Whoever is better on the day will become champion. This is fair."
Perhaps the final contribution should be left to the man who has been here before and lost, but who also knows what it is like to win the championship. "Many people say that it will be a pity when one of the sides loses," said CSKA coach Gazzaev. "This is stupid - kids, women and old men should be pitied, and we are in professional sport."
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