Moscow (AFP) – Russia hope hulking Arsenal striker Artem Dzyuba’s mean streak can lead them past former champions Spain in the host nation’s first World Cup knockout stage match since Soviet times.
That’s Arsenal Tula — not the glamorous London side.
Russia’s reliance on the boot of a man who plies his trade in a town more famous for once making imperial guard rifles than its football speaks to the underdog nature of the men in red.
Coach Stanislav Cherchesov has pieced together a rag-tag team of local journeymen who bicker often and create the type of drama usually associated with a team of pampered superstars.
The 1.96-metre (6ft 5ins) Dzyuba — his nose bent out of shape and face often twisted in a scowl — is the rabble rouser of this overachieving bunch.
“This will only make us meaner,” he said after 10-man Russia lost 3-0 to Uruguay in their last group match, slightly taking the gloss off their two resounding victories until then.
The loss meant the host nation finished second in Group A and were paired with 2010 champions Spain in Sunday’s last 16 showdown at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium, the 80,000-capacity flagship venue of the tournament.
Dzyuba was particularly flustered because he scored two superb goals and assisted one in Russia’s 5-0 trashing of Saudi Arabia and 3-1 defeat of Mohamed Salah’s Egypt.
– Point to prove –
The 29-year-old has been Russia’s one consistently productive forward and a favourite with the fans for freely speaking his mind.
Dzyuba’s resolve to prove his point no matter the cost shone through when he offered to pay a 120,000 euro ($140,000) fee for the right to play Zenit Saint Petersburg — the club that loaned him out to Tula.
He scored a late equaliser that crippled Zenit’s 2018 title aspirations.
Then Dzyuba made the gesture that characterised the Russian domestic season by running up to Zenit coach Roberto Mancini and pointing triumphantly to the name on the back of his shirt.
The Italian left Saint Petersburg under a cloud of criticism and has now taken over the reins of the Italy national team.
He is not the only big name in football likely to remember who Dzyuba is.
Unai Emery replaced Arsene Wenger at the more illustrious Arsenal in May after previously coaching Neymar’s Paris Saint-Germain and Sevilla.
Emery’s brief spell managing Dzyuba’s first club Spartak Moscow ended abruptly with a 5-1 loss to crosstown rivals Dynamo in 2012.
A dejected Dzyuba was asked to explain the drubbing.
“Ask our ‘trenerishka’,” he replied.
The non-existent Russian word literally means “little coach”. It figuratively implies someone with the football knowledge of a child.
The embattled Emery was already heading out the door at Spartak and Dzyuba was derisively called “little player” for attacking his coach.
The nickname is unlikely to stick for much longer.
A career tailspin that saw Dzyuba sent by Spartak to a team in Siberia and by Zenit to Tula has helped him gain a sense of purpose that is paying off at the World Cup.
His is big and pacey — and occasionally brutally honest.
“Russian football needs players like him,” said veteran sports reporter Igor Rabiner. “He is a passionate man.”