Artem Dzyuba: Joe Hart is my favourite goalkeeper – it’d be an honour to score past him

The striker could be Russia’s biggest threat at Euro 2016 after scoring regularly both for the national team and Zenit in recent times. The striker tells FFT that he’s relishing the chance to face England and Wales in Group B…

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What do you think of the teams in Russia’s group – England, Slovakia and Wales?

It’s obvious that the English are favourites – they’re among the favourites in all the tournaments they play in. They might not be among those fighting it out to win the title, but they’re still a very strong side. However, we can compete against them.

I think Germany and France are the main favourites, but I think that the rest are fairly equal and we can play against them. It’s up to the coaching staff to come up with plans to play against England.

There’s no point in going to the European Championship if you’re going to be afraid of Wales and Slovakia

Slovakia are a bit of a dark horse. They have [Marek] Hamsik, who’s a great footballer, and they’re a team that’s strong and will to fight to the end. It will be a difficult match against them, as they are a very prickly team.

With Wales, it’s obvious that they're built around Gareth Bale and to a lesser extent, [Aaron] Ramsey. During the qualification we saw that, but we must not be afraid of playing against them. We are Russia and I don’t think that we’re any weaker than Slovakia and Wales. We will at least be their equals. There’s no point in going to the European Championship if you’re going to be afraid of Wales and Slovakia. We respect them of course, but we’re not afraid of anyone.

Which players do you like in the England team?

With all due respect to the other players, I still associate England with Wayne Rooney. He has scored the most goals and he’s a great player without any weak points. He can play as a central striker, he can play in the hole, but he can also play for the team. He is a star player, but he can also put in a shift.

I also really like Joe Hart, who is probably my favourite goalkeeper at the moment. He comes across as being quite charismatic, as well as being a powerful presence on the pitch. He’s a top-class keeper and you just have to remember how he played against Barcelona last year and the saves he made. It would be a great honour for me if I manage to score against him. I hope that I'll have the chance.

There are a lot of good players – they have a lot of pace, they are strong and experienced in defence. There is also Jamie Vardy and Harry Kane, so in attack they are very strong.

Do you think it’s good that your first match is against England?

I think it’s a good thing that we’re playing against a strong side. From the first minutes we will feel what it’s like to play in the European Championship, and what's in front of us. We will know what the tempo is like, what nerves we will feel and what it will be like both physically and psychologically.

After that game, we will be able to see both our strong and weak points. I also think that we’ll be able to learn a lot from the game. It will show us how we’ll need to prepare later on in the tournament against Slovakia and Wales.

Fabio Capello was Russia’s boss until last year. What was it like to work with him?

It wasn’t easy. I wouldn’t say it was really difficult, but it wasn’t easy because he has his own specific personality which is quite conservative. I’m sure that the English also spoke a lot about him.

Our training camps were really difficult psychologically because we were always in our rooms and it wasn’t a great atmosphere. I don’t know why it was like that. Towards the end, after the World Cup, Capello began to change and was a lot brighter and smiled more. We didn’t know why that was the case, but someone said that it was probably due to the fact that he knew he would leave soon.

Leonid Slutsky is now manager, and when he was 19 had to retire as a player after falling out of a tree while trying to rescue a cat. Does he ever tell you about that?

Everyone knows about this story – we laughed about how the branches on the tree weren’t able to hold his weight! He always smiles when you talk about it. It’s fate that it happened, as Slutsky was able to concentrate on his coaching career, and I hope that he’ll be able to enjoy even greater success in the near future.

Artem Dzyuba celebrates after scoring for Russia

Dzyuba's Russia record is strong: nine goals in 18 caps

How important is it that you finally have a manager who speaks Russian, after Capello, Dick Advocaat and Guus Hiddink?

I don’t think knowing Russian is a major factor. There was a great atmosphere under Guus Hiddink. I didn’t get to experience it myself, but all the players I speak to remember that period fondly. I think it generally depends on the coach.

Aside from being a good tactician, he also needs to be able to talk to the players and almost be like a psychologist. He needs to be able to unite a group because they’re all coming from different clubs with different levels of morale, and he needs to get everyone fighting for the same goal. Hiddink managed to do that and I think that Slutsky is doing it as well.

You missed out on the squads for both Euro 2012 and the 2014 World Cup. Does that give you a greater incentive to do well this time?

For me they were two massive blows, and of course it really hurt. The team didn’t do well on both occasions and I suppose it was meant to be that I wouldn’t participate. I don’t know how things would have gone had I been in the squad, but it definitely hurt me that I wasn’t involved. Everyone was saying that I would be in the squad, but everything changed.

Maybe it was even a good thing in a funny sort of way, as it made me angry. It made me work on my game even more to show everyone, myself included, that I belong at this level. You have good matches and bad matches, but the main thing is to not give up and always believe in yourself, and things will start to fall into place over time.

You’ve scored a lot of goals for Russia and Zenit in recent times...

Of course that gives me a lot of confidence in my own ability, but it also gives me a feeling of responsibility in order to keep on improving, to fight and never give up out on the pitch. For me it’s a great responsibility, but also an honour because I have always dreamt about this and I’m always trying to improve.

Artem Dzyuba celebrates after scoring for Zenit

Dzyuba plundered six goals in eight Champions League games in 2015/16

I just want to say a big thank you to my team-mates at both Zenit and in the national team – and to my coaches, like Andre Villas-Boas and Leonid Slutsky, because they believed in me and gave me the chance to become better. I hope that I can play well at the European Championship and show everyone that I can play in these big tournaments.

The Champions League is the same. I dreamt of playing in it and hearing the theme tune as kid, and it was an incredible feeling. I enjoy every second that I’m out there on the pitch. This is something that will be in my memory for the rest of my life.

It wasn’t easy working with Capello – our training camps were really difficult psychologically because we were always in our rooms and it wasn’t a great atmosphere

Russia went out in the group stage at the 2014 World Cup. How confident are you of doing better this time?

The World Cup wasn’t great for us after everyone was hoping we would do well. Now things are much better and there is a great atmosphere in the team. Everyone is the same and we have managed to make a bit of a comeback by getting to the European Championship. That’s great, so now we need to make sure that we can be proud of ourselves. The group we’re in isn’t the hardest, but it’s also not the easiest.

Do you think that Russia could be a dark horse at this tournament?

I think we just need to go and prepare quietly, and not put any specific goals in front of us, such as getting to the final or winning the tournament. I think we could be a kind of dark horse who people will respect, but we need to do that on the pitch and qualify from the group so that everyone can see we’re a good team.

The minimum aim is to try to get out of the group, then we will see what happens. We have a really good coach, a great bunch of guys in the squad and a good group of players to choose from. We get on really well and I think we have every chance of doing well.

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