June 21, 2018
Picture Artem Dzyuba calling for the ball. He is strong, stands at a menacing 6-foot-5 and looks down upon most defenders assigned to mark him. He’s easy to spot in the crowd, but when he stretches his arm upwards (perhaps touching 10-feet), he becomes that much easier to recognise, even from a good 35 yards away. It takes a great deal of skill to accurately lob the ball diagonally to a teammate. But it takes a good deal of determination and talent to chest the pass into control when you’ve got opponents looking to take away possession. The term ‘target-man,’ after all, doesn’t just work one way.
On this occasion, in a Russian Premier League match in April, a Zenit St Petersburg defender managed to get a toe-poke to nudge the ball away. But only as far as another Arsenal Tula attacker. A shot from inside the box struck the woodwork, and Dzyuba, despite his size, was the first to spring forward and tap home the rebound.
The goal came as an 88th-minute equaliser in a match that ended as a 3-3 draw, at the Arsenal Stadium (193 km south of Moscow). And it was arguably the one that earned him a place in the final 23 that made the Russian squad for the World Cup.
On Tuesday, at the Krestovsky Stadium, Dzyuba scored a similar goal but this time for the Russian national team. A long-range pass from inside the Russian half had the 29-year-old striker chest down, take a touch to evade a rushing Egyptian defender, and then slot home for the hosts’ third goal of the night. This was the goal that helped Russia secure a 3-1 lead and qualify for the second round of the illustrious tournament for the first time since the 1986 edition (where they competed as the Soviet Union). And it came from a man, who until April was expected to not make it to Stanislav Cherchesov final squad.
When Mancini took over the reigns at Zenit, he deemed Dzyuba surplus to his needs. Instead, he wanted to field the Argentine players he had purchased along with Russian striker Aleksandr Kokorin.
‘Healthy as a lion’
Dzyuba was subsequently dropped from the first training camp of the year, with the club claiming the veteran striker was unfit. The striker reacted by posting videos of himself training in the gym and claiming that he was “healthy as a lion.”
It was clear that Mancini didn’t want Dzyuba, so much so that even when the other Russian clubs couldn’t match the striker’s price tag, he was willing to downgrade him and send him out on loan to middle-table Arsenal Tula. The move put Dzyuba’s chances of making it to the World Cup squad in jeopardy. But instead, Dzyuba came back to haunt his former boss. After his late equaliser, he dashed to the touchline to celebrate in front Mancini. There was a lot of anger in that gesture, but it was one (along with the gravity of the goal itself) that made clear to Cherchesov that Dzyuba could deliver when needed the most. And he did.
The fire was indeed burning in every bit of his towering frame when he played on Tuesday. His movement in the box and sheer presence forced Ahmed Fathy of Egypt to deflect the ball into his own-goal for Russia’s opener. Then there was his positioning sense, his power and ability to shrug off challenges at ease, and then win the aerial duels.
“Dzyuba gave the attack depth, he forced Egyptian players to drop balls into the zones where our players were,” former Russia coach Boris Ignatyev told Sputnik. “The Russian team won almost all the knockdowns, which is very important. And that’s what we have to praise Dzyuba for.”
And when his goal came in the 62nd minute, it prompted the forward to celebrate with the same gusto as what he had done in April. “I am always fired up,” he told reporters after the match. “I always want more and more.”
The strike happened to be his second of the tournament. On the opening day, he came on as a second-half substitite to head home Russia’s third in a 5-0 demolition of Saudi Arabia. Against Egypt, he got the nod from the national coach to start the match. “We know Egypt’s weakness and tactically speaking, he was more fitting for the purpose as the target man,” Cherchesov told The Sun.
Earlier in the year, he was deemed surplus to a club that had signed him in 2015. Since then, Mancini has moved on to take up the task of rebuilding an Italian team and Kokorin (ironically) never made the Russian squad. Newcastle United in the Premier League meanwhile, is reportedly preparing to make a bid to sign Dzyuba.
The target-man though, with a man-of-the-match performance in the home ground of Zenit, for now, is right where he belongs. At the World Cup, in the second round.