Russia's Artyom Dzyuba salutes when celebrating scoring his side's opening goal during the round of 16 match between Spain and Russia at the 2018 soccer World Cup at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, Russia, Sunday, July 1, 2018. (AP Photo/Antonio Calanni)

Not elegant but functional, Russia's Dzyuba a model for team

July 01, 2018 - 3:48 pm
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MOSCOW (AP) — He's not elegant but he gets the job done.

Russia's tall, broad-shouldered forward Artyom Dzyuba is like his team — physical, fiercely dedicated and rough around the edges.

Dzyuba forced a penalty and scored from the spot to keep Russia in the game after falling behind 1-0 Sunday, then roared on his teammates as they kept the 120-minute match deadlocked and won the penalty shootout 4-3 against heavily favored Spain.

"It's a miracle," he croaked in the dressing room, leading the team in chant of "well done, guys" as fellow striker Fyodor Smolov jumped atop a table.

"We're insanely happy," Dzyuba said. "We believed that order, discipline and dedication can beat class."

Russia's been a sleeping giant in football for decades, but Sunday it showed signs of that promise. Russia moves on to a quarterfinal against Croatia or Denmark Saturday.

"The football god always seemed to be turning away from us, and I think today it's like never before," Dzyuba said.

Before the game, he had compared Russia's qualification from the group stage to a fairy tale, and the fans echoed that with a vast banner reading: "You were born to make the fairy tale real."

From the start, the biggest country in the world played like it was one of the smallest. Russia's defense-first approach echoed the Iceland team which beat in England in 2016, or the Greeks who won the European title in 2004.

Dzyuba stayed alone up front, using his size and strength to disrupt Spain's defense, win headers and hold up the ball. At 1.96 meters (6 foot 4 inches) tall, his main strengths heading and finishing, Dzyuba sometimes seems like a forward from a bygone era.

Spain coach Fernando Hierro had said the day before that teams win tournaments by making fewest mistakes. But his team ended up taking no risks.

Spain was cautious to the extreme, passing the ball more than 1,029 times successfully, but rarely near the Russian goal. Russia has completed the same number of passes in four World Cup matches combined, just 202 Sunday.

When Spain made a mistake, Russia tried to counter quickly, often working to set up corner kicks aimed toward Dzyuba.

Russia won a corner through Spanish confusion in defense in the 41st minute, and Alexander Samedov hit the ball for Dzyuba, who headed it straight into Gerard Pique's waving arm. Penalty.

Russia hadn't practiced penalties and didn't have a dedicated penalty taker for the game.

"Several guys told me to go and take it," Dzyuba said. "I looked left and right and thought, 'Why not?' I was scared, to be honest, with the whole world watching. I thought that if, God forbid, I miss it, everyone will just eat me. Thank God we believed."

Dzyuba hit the spot-kick low and hard past David de Gea and immediately raced toward the corner flag to salute crowd. He saluted with his left hand on top of his head, in imitation of a hat, since Russian military traditions holds that troops can't salute with a bare head.

Even before the match was over, Russian fans could be seen taking photos of themselves mimicking Dzyuba's salute.

The man of the match award went to Russia's shootout hero, goalkeeper and captain Igor Akinfeev. He saved two kicks in the shootout, and kept Spain scoreless for the last 108 minutes despite Russia having possession just 25 percent of the time.

But that would not have mattered if Dzyuba didn't create a penalty and knock it in.

"The most important thing for us is that the whole country is proud of us so a huge thank-you," he said. "We believed in ourselves to the end and we hung on through this game today, through the pain, through the cramps, through everything."

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James Ellingworth is at https://twitter.com/jellingworth

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