Chris Smalling has revealed that England are attempting to devise a special plan to nullify the threat of Russia’s towering forward Artem Dzyuba in Saturday’s Euro 2016 Group B opener in Marseille.
The Manchester United centre-half is set to partner Chelsea’s Gary Cahill in the heart of Roy Hodgson’s defence after training as expected on Wednesday following a scare 24 hours earlier, which led to the 26-year-old returning to the team’s Chantilly hotel with an ice pack on his left knee.
Despite concerns over the solidity of England’s back four – six goals have been conceded in five internationals this year – Hodgson is determined to exploit the experience of Smalling and Cahill in order to cope with the unique threat posed by Dzyuba.
At 6ft 5ins, the Zenit St Petersburg forward has been pinpointed as the biggest weapon in Russia’s armoury.
Dzyuba goes into Euro 2016 having scored nine goals in 18 appearances for his country, with six goals in eight games for Zenit in the Champions League last season.
The 27-year-old, who scored twice against Tottenham during a Uefa Cup tie with Spartak Moscow in December 2008, has claimed that he is now ready to grasp his chance at the European Championships having missed out on Euro 2012.
“I feel that I am now one of the leaders of the national team,” Dzyuba said. “Four years ago, before Euro 2012, which I eventually did not play in, I called myself a lion cub, but now I am a lion.”
With England aiming to secure an opening game victory ahead of next Thursday’s encounter with Wales in Lens, however, Smalling admits that shackling Dzyuba has been a focal point of the team’s tactical meetings this week.
“We have been watching videos this week,” Smalling said. “He (Dzyuba) is a big guy and it will be a physical battle.
“But that is something in the Premier League that we face week in and week out and I enjoy it.
“We all have our individual battle and picking up the second balls is crucial, as well as not letting him dictate.
“Thing like him being able to bring the ball down on his chest – we have to stop that. Our two central defenders will have to be very physical and aggressive against him.
“But as defenders in the Premier League, we are used to big guys and those challenges and it’s something we enjoy as centre-backs.
“There is always something to prove to people, whether it’s with England or whether it’s with our club.
“It’s one of those situations when there may be someone else who can come in and do the job better – it’s time to stand up and be counted. I want to show I am good enough for that job.”
Euro 2016: Top 10 youngsters to watch out for in France
Schalke & Germany
The latest of Germany’s string of promising youngsters. After eight goals and six assists in 33 Bundesliga matches, the speedy winger has impressed for the national team. Chelsea, Manchester United and Liverpool are all closely monitoring the teen, who could be the world champions’ secret weapon.
Benfica & Portugal
The flamboyant teen has already earned himself a multi-million-pound switch to a European giant – joining Bayern Munich after the finals. Has got compatriots excited with Cristiano Ronaldo the wrong side of 30 and impressed against England earlier this month.
Basle & Switzerland
The Swiss have a young, vibrant squad and the forward will hope to follow compatriot Granit Xhaka in securing a big-money move to a European heavyweight. Scored 10 goals in 27 league appearances this season and the pacy frontman is in prime position to explode onto the European scene.
Bayer Leverkusen & Turkey
Already familiar to English crowds with his goal against England last month and a danger from dead-balls. Caught the eye with fine goals against Borussia Dortmund, Schalke, and Wolfsburg and a good tournament for the fleet-footed midfielder could alert a number of the European big guns, with Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp a known admirer.
Manchester United & England
Has enjoyed a whirlwind four months since his goalscoring debut for the Old Trafford side in the Europa League. With similar debut goals in the Premier League and for England, the 18-year-old rode the crest of a wave and continued his fairytale 2016 by winning a place in Roy Hodgson’s squad. Unlikely to start the opening game, but can not be written off given his script thus far.
Bayer Leverkusen & Croatia
After struggling to make a mark at Roma, Jedvaj secured a £5m move to Leverkusen. That has proven a bargain with the youngster impressing and tipped to displace either Vedran Ćorluka or Gordon Schildenfeld and make an impact in France.
Manchester City & Belgium
A successful loan spell at Galatasaray helped the Man City defender’s stock rise considerably. Will be hoping to fill the gap left by the injured Vincent Kompany.
Standing 6’1 and not one to shy away from a challenge, he could establish himself in the national side and impress incoming club manager Pep Guardiola.
CSKA Moscow & Russia
Ranked highly in his homeland having enjoyed a superb run for both club and country. Impressed in various age classes and his call-up to the senior team was not unexpected. Now in the final year of his contract, a strong showing at the Euro’s will attract suitors.
Lyons & France
Raphael Varane’s withdrawal from the national team might just hand Umtiti his big chance. Has impressed at the back for Lyons, capable of reading the game and making well-timed tackles. Potentially partnered alongside Laurent Koscielny at the finals, with Barcelona and Tottenham among the sides monitoring his success over the next month.
Ajax & Poland
After an impressive loan at Ajax, the Dutch side were impressed enough to part with £2m for the striker. Found the net an impressive 21 times in 31 Eredivisie matches, and has 10 in 25 caps for the Poles. Should he carry over his scoring form into the Euro’s, Ajax may find themselves fending off enquiries.
Smalling has enjoyed mixed results against the Premier League’s taller centre-forwards, with West Ham’s Andy Carroll and Crystal Palace striker Conor Wickham troubling the defender during the final weeks of last season.
A sending off in the FA Cup final victory against Crystal Palace, for fouls on Wickham and Yannick Bolasie, highlighted the perils of rash challenges – an issue which will be dealt with severely by referees at Euro 2016 – and Smalling accepts that lessons have to be learned ahead of the tournament.
“Not too long ago we had a meeting with an ex-referee (David Elleray),” Smalling said. “He came in and explained a lot of things that we may or not get away with in the Premier League compared to here.
“I think a factor in the Premier League is that you maybe do one or two fouls before a booking comes, where now they may clamp down sooner, tiny little things like that.
“But they are not things that will distract away from how we normally play.”
The positive, from a defensive perspective, is that England’s final preparation game, against Portugal at Wembley, ended with the back four keeping a clean sheet for the first time since last November.
But after the necessity of the warm-up fixtures, Smalling admits the Russia game is when everything has to work.
“That’s what those friendly games are there for, to try different players and different formations,” Smalling said. “It is about making sure that, when the game kicks off against Russia, we are fully concentrated, like we were in those friendly games.”