Sport

Russia ace: “England favourites on paper but that means nothing”

England fans might not be too familiar with the name Artem Dzyuba but there’s every chance they could be bewailing it very soon.

Notching eight goals for Russia in their Euro 2016 qualification campaign (only Thomas Muller, Robert Lewandowski and Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored more), the Zenit Saint Petersburg forward will be hoping to replicate that scintillating form when he meets Roy Hodgson’s men in Marseille this Saturday - a fixture he doesn’t believe is as one-sided as some would believe…

“When the group was drawn I said I thought it was a very even group,” he tells ShortList. “England might be the favourites on paper, but that means nothing, I think it will be competitive across all four teams.”

That's not all: warning us that his team “are ready” and will not give England an easy game, he also added that his Russian team-mates are glad to face the Three Lions first: “We are glad England are the first game, because if we win, it gives us a lot of confidence for the rest of the tournament."

Read on below for our full chat with Dzyuba, in which he also gave his thoughts on the much maligned Wayne Rooney, and Russia’s other big fixture vs Gareth Bale. Wait, we mean Wales.

You scored 8 goals in qualification. You must be confident of scoring a few goals in the tournament…
I was happy with the goals I scored in qualification, and I hope in France I can carry that on.

Russia are 66/1 to win the European Championships. So are Wales. Do you think Russia stand a better chance of going through?
When the group was drawn I said I thought it was a very even group. England might be the group favourites on paper, but that means nothing, I think it will be competitive across all four teams.

Would you be happy with a draw against England? Or will only a victory do?
A draw would not be a bad result, but we will play for a win. We are glad England are the first game, because if we win, it gives us a lot of confidence for the rest of the tournament.

What weaknesses do England have?
England are full of quality players, we are not looking to beat them because of their weaknesses, rather looking to beat them because of our strengths.

Much has been made of John Stones potentially starting in central defence after a relatively shaky season. Would you relish playing against him?
We can’t control the team England put out. Most of their players play for top Premier League clubs, so none of them are weak players. It is more about us than about England. I don’t look at England’s defence and see one bad player.

Conversely, what English players do you think pose the biggest threat to Russia?
The strikers [Harry] Kane and [Jamie] Vardy have a lot of goals this season, but all the attacking players are capable of scoring goals. They are two strikers who have scored a lot of goals. They will come into the tournament with confidence, and as a striker that is one of the most important things you can have.

Any English players that you don’t know much about?
There are some young players who are new to the squad, but most of the players play for the biggest teams in The Premier League and are well known to us and everybody else in Europe.

Should England fear Russia?
That is up to England, we can’t tell them what to think. All I can promise is that we are ready, and they will not get an easy game. We know we have a lot of quality, the key will be playing with confidence, passion, and belief. It is the opening game for us, the euphoria will be high, and we have to make the most of that.

Many England fans aren't convinced Wayne Rooney should start – he’s had a bad season. Do you think he’s past his peak?
No not at all, I still think he is maybe their most dangerous player. You don’t lose quality like he has. He has played in the biggest games in football - he will be used to the pressure.

Do you think you should overcome Wales despite the fact they have Gareth Bale?
He has been one of the best players in the world this year, and will be full of confidence after the Champions League win. Wales will not give us an easy game, but we are confident we can win.

Is there an expectation in Russia for the team to do well? Do you feel any pressure to achieve a certain number of goals/wins?
We have expectation on ourselves. The first objective is to get out of the group, which we believe we will do, then see what happens from there.