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Nov 19, 2006

CSKA win overshadowed by match-fixing allegations

MOSCOW, Nov 19 (Reuters) - CSKA Moscow's second consecutive Russian title, secured on Saturday with a match to spare, was a hollow victory for many fans after a season overshadowed by widespread allegations of match-fixing.

The army side crushed Luch-Energiya Vladivostok 4-0 to clinch the title. With a round of matches still to play, second-placed city rivals Spartak Moscow could draw level on points but CSKA would still win the championship because they have had more victories.

Talk of corruption and match-rigging has been rife for years in Russia but it escalated this season.

Many Russian bookmakers refused to take bets on certain matches, saying their outcome was pre-determined, while CSKA's main rivals, Spartak Moscow and Zenit St Petersburg, accused the army side of benefiting from favourable refereeing decisions.

Match-fixing allegations reached new heights near the end of the season following CSKA's controversial 1-0 win over Zenit on Nov. 5, which virtually sealed first place for the Moscow club.

The Russian FA later acknowledged that the referee had made crucial errors in disallowing two Zenit goals while wrongly awarding CSKA a penalty which they scored.

The match was also marred by a number of altercations, notably a scuffle between CSKA's Brazilian striker Vagner Love and Zenit's Dutch midfielder Fernando Ricksen.

After initially suspending Love for punching Ricksen, the league's disciplinary committee reversed its decision and allowed the Brazilian to go unpunished. Love then scored a hat-trick against Vladivostok to clinch first place for CSKA.

The controversy has attracted huge media coverage around the country and led to several politicians writing an open letter to Russia's Prosecutor General, calling for an investigation.

One St Petersburg politician even suggested relegating CSKA if they were found guilty, following the example of Italian champions Juventus who were demoted to Serie B after a match-fixing scandal.

CSKA have denied any wrongdoing.

Observers have pointed to a conflict of interest in CSKA president Yevgeny Giner also running the premier league.

Match-rigging allegations have coincided with an increase in violence and racism in the domestic game.

This month, Saturn's Ghanaian striker Baffour Gyan accused Spartak captain Yegor Titov, one of Russia's most popular and influential players, of inciting racist abuse from the crowd. Titov denies the charge.

A week earlier, Spartak fans, considered the most violent in the country, displayed a banner showing a swastika during a league match at Shinnik Yaroslavl.

Also this month, a coach of a third-division club received a life ban from the game for his role in hiring a gang of thugs to attack three of his players following allegations of bribe-taking.

The team captain suffered the most serious injuries in the attack, spending several weeks in hospital with a broken nose, concussion and a bullet wound in an arm.

While off-the-pitch incidents have been on the rise, playing standards have diminished, most evident from Russian clubs' poor showing in European competition.

Spartak remain rooted to the bottom of their Champions League group, having gone a record 21 matches without a win in Europe's premier club competition.

Lokomotiv, another big Moscow side, were knocked out of the UEFA Cup in the first round, suffering a humiliating defeat at the hands of Belgian part-timers Zulte Waregem.

Even CSKA have been inconsistent throughout the season. Despite leading their Champions League group, Valery Gazzayev's team have struggled against most of their European rivals and were fortunate to snatch a 0-0 draw at Arsenal this month.

The London club wasted a sackful of clear-cut chances at the Emirates Stadium to allow the Russians to escape with a point, prompting Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger to underline a huge gulf in class between the two sides.

'We dominated this Moscow team by miles,' Wenger said afterwards. 'There was a division's difference between us.'