Saturday, 9 June 2012

Wilson: Time for Dzagoev to deliver

Jonathan Wilson believes Euro 2012 could be the perfect stage of Russian wonderkid Alan Dzagoev to deliver on his promise.

Russian football has waited a long time for this, but at last against the Czech Republic, Alan Dzagoev came of age. He's quick, he's tough, he's good in the air, he's technically gifted and at the age of 18 he scored 12 goals and provided nine assists in a season in the Russian Premier League. There has been a sense that he has stalled slightly at CSKA Moscow, but he is still young - he will turn 22 on June 17 - and finally, in a major game, he delivered on his immense promise.
It wasn't just his goals - superbly taken though they was, the first lashed home after Aleksandr Kerzhakov's header had come back off the post, the second thrashed home form a Roman Pavlyuchenko pass - it was his general link up play. Actually, he should have done rather better when laid through by Kerzhakov five minutes after his goal, skewing badly wide, but more important was the sense of shape and cohesion he gave to the side.
This is a Russia side that has been together a long time: all of the likely first XI apart from Dzagoev either played at Euro 2008 or would have done but for injury or withdrawal. Six of the starting outfielders play for Zenit St Petersburg - so they should have a greater mutual understanding than just about any other side at the European Championship. Given Kerzhakov's natural inclination to drop deep and operate almost as a false nine, with Andrei Arshavin and Dzagoev cutting in from the flanks, Aleksandr Anyukov and Yuri Zhirkov overlapping from full-back and Roman Shirokov, who scored five goals in the Champions League this season, breaking forward from midfield, Russia were superbly fluent. There had been some thought Dzagoev would be left out to accommodate a more traditional centre-forward in either Roman Pavlyuchenko or Pavel Pogrebnyak, with Kerzhakov moving to the right, but Dick Advocaat, the coach, went for fluidity.
Dzagoev's parents are Ossetians who emigrated from Georgia to Beslan, where he was born. One event, inevitably, dominates any discussion of his childhood. Dzagoev's father, Tariel, was at work when news broke in 2004 that one of the town's seven schools had been taken over by armed rebels demanding an end to the Second Chechen War. In the initial confusion, he was told that it was Alan's school, number four, that had been attacked, and rushed there to discover that it was actually pupils at school number one who had been taken hostage.
Fearing further incidents, he took his son his home. Two days later, as Russian security forced attempted to regain control of the school, at least 334 hostages, including 186 children, were killed.
By then, Dzagoev had already spent four years training with Alania Vladikavkaz, apparently encouraged in his football by his mother, who, he claims, can do ten keepie-ups standing on one leg. When he was 16, he was spotted by Yuri Oskin, a coach at the academy at Primorsky that is now funded by Roman Abramovich. Dzagoev claims he had been a Chelsea fan for two years before he went there, but there can be little doubt that his experiences in Primorsky have strengthened his affection. He lists Frank Lampard as a favourite player, which makes a certain sense in terms of his ability to arrive late from deep positions, but the player to whom he is most often compared in Russia is the former Lokomotiv Moscow playmaker Dmitri Loskov.
There Dzagoev was part of the academy side that finished sixth in the Ural-Povolzhye section of the third tier of Russian professional football, scoring five goals and attracting the attention of a host of clubs before signing for CSKA. "Dzagoev plays football not for fame and money, but because football is his life," said the academy coach Igor Rodkin. "It is rare today that a victory is more important for a player than the prize money for it, but with Alan, that is exactly the case."
There is a seriousness to Dzagoev which, while not entirely uncommon among Russian forwards, still marks him out. Marat Izmailov, for instance, who is now at Sporting, professed to be "too tired to enjoy myself" in his early days at Lokomotiv, and when he was 19 had an operation to straighten his nasal passages and so make his breathing more efficient. Dzagoev hasn't quite reached those extremes, but he too has spoken of having "no time for fun".
His first coach at CSKA, Valeri Gazzaev, praised his parents for bringing their son up to be so diligent and industrious. They remain protective even now. Not for Dzagoev the temptations of bling and flash cars; his dad has banned him from driving (presumably to spare him the risks of Moscow traffic), and for a long time he took a bus from his rented flat to training every day. To speak only of his sobriety and his work-rate, though, is to detract from just how talented he is. He struck the woodwork after coming off the bench to make his debut for Russia against Germany in October 2008. That made him the youngest outfielder ever to play for Russia (his CSKA team-mate, the goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev, holds the overall record), but, characteristically, he was gloomy after that game. "It would have been a good day only if my shot had gone in and we had drawn," he said.
His goal return has been patchy but that's only part of what he offers. "I've followed him since his debut against Khimki [in which he scored]," said the former Russia international Alexander Mostovoi. "It seemed to me even then that Alan stands apart from other players because of his non-standard actions. He is not afraid to get the ball, to dribble, to take responsibility. I always like players like that."
And if he is in a spell on confidence in front of goal, as he appeared to be, Dzagoev could be the emerging player of the tournament.

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