How Artem Dzyuba became Russia's unlikely World Cup hero

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MOSCOW -- Russian fans are unlikely to ever forget Artem Dzyuba's words in November 2012. Asked by the reporters to explain Spartak Moscow's 5-1 home defeat at the hands of city rivals Dynamo, the striker replied: "Ask our trenerishka." It is not an easy term to translate but the closest try would probably be "a little coach" in a very derogatory sense.

The man in question was Unai Emery, who was fired that day after fewer than six months in charge of Spartak. Dzyuba, meanwhile, was fiercely criticized for insulting his boss and subsequently nicknamed igrochiska, which roughly means "a little player". He did not care, though, and accepted it with a smile, true to has character.

You might say that Emery had had the last laugh. He won three Europa League trophies with Sevilla, plus Ligue 1 with Paris Saint-Germain and is starting a new adventure as Arsene Wenger's heir at Arsenal, whereas Dzyuba, somewhat ironically, spent the months ahead of the World Cup at tiny Russian club Arsenal Tula.

Yet, in a bizarre twist of fate, the spell at the lesser Arsenal helped the striker work his way back into the national team and become one of the biggest heroes of the host nation, having scored two majestic goals in Russia's opening two games.

But Dzyuba loves making a point and gets especially motivated when the need to prove himself becomes desperate. He is ready to do anything to take revenge, and making big headlines is his speciality. It would be difficult to find a more controversial player in Russia, but that suits him perfectly.

Not for nothing, Dzyuba tried to brand himself as the Russian version of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and while the comparison was ridiculed mercilessly, there are some vague lines of similarity beyond his character. Towering and imposing physically -- he is listed at 6-foot-4 and almost 200 lbs -- Dzyuba possesses decent technical skills and good vision for such a burly centre-forward.

Those talents have not always been appreciated, though, and his career path has been unconventional. Raised at the Spartak academy, Dzyuba was never really rated, and a series of incidents didn't help his cause. In 2009, he was sent on loan to Siberian outfit Tomsk after teammate Vladimir Bystrov accused him of stealing money in the dressing room, a claim the striker vehemently denied.

Then came the trenerishka incident, which Dzyuba followed with more criticism of Emery. He had difficulties with other coaches: Fabio Capello disliked the striker's personality and refused to take him to the 2014 World Cup because he was too cheerful, while Valery Karpin underused Dzyuba at Spartak.

Eventually, after two loan spells with Rostov, he decided to leave his beloved club in 2015 and did so in the loudest way imaginable, refusing a good contract offer and moving to earn a better salary at bitter rivals Zenit. Spartak fans hated him, but Dzyuba has since enjoyed scoring against his former club four times in a row.

Dzyuba was quite prolific during his first two seasons in St. Petersburg and earned a certain place with the national team under Leonid Slutsky, with whom he found mutual understanding. Slutsky resigned after Euro 2016, however, and things became complicated again under current boss Stanislav Cherchesov.

Citing fitness concerns, Dzyuba withdrew from Russia's Confederations Cup squad last year, but the manager was disappointed with his attitude. The striker's reaction? When Russia were eliminated in the group stage, he posed with fellow Zenit striker Aleksandr Kokorin. The pair published an Instagram post, making a "moustache" sign, a hint that they were happy to see Cherchesov fail.

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Few pundits expected Dzyuba to feature this summer either, especially after he fell out of favour with Roberto Mancini at Zenit and barely played in the first half of the 2017-18 season. But, as he had throughout his career, Dzyuba simply had to prove his doubters wrong and that began when, in January, Zenit loaned him to Arsenal Tula.

According to the terms of the deal, Arsenal had to pay Zenit €120,000 for the forward to play against his parent club in April. Dzyuba offered to pay half the money himself in order to face Mancini and duly scored a crucial late equalizer in a 3-3 draw that was disastrous for Zenit's Champions League qualification chances.

In all, Dzyuba netted six times in 10 matches for Tula ,and Cherchesov decided to gamble, especially when Kokorin was ruled out of the World Cup with a knee injury. He started on the bench, with Fyodor Smolov playing as a lone striker, but the Krasnodar forward disappointed against Saudi Arabia. When given his chance, Dzyuba came on and immediately found the net with a bullet header.

He duly started against Egypt -- at Zenit's stadium in St. Petersburg -- forcing an own goal to open the scoring before netting the third goal himself. Heading into Monday's Group A decider vs. Uruguay and just a couple of months before he turns 30, his time has arrived.

"All the journalists adore Dzyuba," Sport Express journalist Filipp Papenkov tells ESPN FC. "If you face him in the mixed zone, you are always bound to get a spicy quote. He is never boring and likes to joke around. However, such openness wasn't always in his favour, and his image suffered. Now, thanks to his goals at the World Cup, he could probably fix it, because he won't be considered just an awkward and funny guy anymore."

Russian fans hope he is right.