ST PETERSBURG (Reuters) - The physical threat of a target-man striker has become something of an endangered species in modern football but Russia’s Artem Dzyuba offered a reminder, in Tuesday’s 3-1 World Cup win over Egypt, that there is still value in the big man up-front.
Egypt’s defense struggled to handle the power and aggression of the 29-year-old Dzyuba throughout the win which took the hosts to near certain qualification for the knockout stage from Group A.
Chosen over Fedor Smolov in attack, after coming on as a substitute and scoring against Saudi Arabia in the opening game, Dzyuba had a crucial role in the 47th minute opening goal as he challenged defender Ahmed Fathi who knocked the ball into his own net.
Dzyuba then scored the third himself with a goal of gloriously nostalgic directness.
He rose to take down a long ball on his chest and then barged his way past Egypt defender Ali Gabr before confidently firing home and charging off to celebrate with a look of wild delight on his face.
Russia coach Stanislav Cherchesov said it was the striker’s power in the air that he had caused him to feature Dzyuba in the starting line-up.
“We know Egypt’s weakness and tactically speaking he was more fitting for the purpose as a target man,” he said.
Six months ago, though, Dzyuba could have been forgiven for thinking he might not even make the 23-man squad for the World Cup.
Roberto Mancini, then Zenit St Petersburg coach, recently appointed Italy’s national team boss, decided the forward was surplus to his requirements and loaned him out to mid-table Arsenal Tula.
For a player of Dzyuba’s experience and status, it was a humiliating blow but characteristically he made a strong response - getting the 88th minute equalizer in a 3-3 draw against Zenit and then running to the touchline to celebrate right in front of Mancini.
That aggression and desire to prove his critics wrong was evident once again against Egypt.
“I am always fired up, I always want more and more,” he told reporters.
“I am happy to be here. Very proud. We deserved what happened because we did not concede a single centimeter to them,” he added.
Far from being a fringe figure, Dzyuba looks like a leader in the national team and the Russian fans in Zenit’s stadium on Tuesday roared their appreciation.
“The most important thing is we won. The whole country is happy I think, Russia is partying. We are unbelievable happy. Thank you to everyone for support,” he said.
With six points from their opening two games, Russia will qualify for the knockout stage if Uruguay avoid defeat against the Saudis on Wednesday.
From being viewed with a mixture of apathy and disdain by their fans, the Russian team find themselves being lauded.
“We are happy, madly happy,” said the striker.
“We did our best, we got prepared, we worked hard all time and all that and the fact that the whole country supports us really helps. We see how many people are on the streets watching on the huge screens supporting us,” he said.
The big man certainly isn’t lacking ambition: “Probably I am being too bold - but we want to win the Cup”.
Reporting by Simon Evans; Editing by Christian Radnedge