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.”
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.”