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From outcast to icon and back again… Is the international career of one of Russia’s most colorful football heroes over?

Locked in a straight race with Croatia for an automatic spot at next year’s World Cup in Qatar, Russia have two crucial qualifiers coming up this month.

First is a meeting with Cyprus in St. Petersburg on November 11, before a trip to Split to face Croatia three days later.

Russia currently sit top of their qualifying group on 19 points from eight games, with Croatia two points adrift.

With Croatia traveling to minnows Malta before taking on Russia, the final group-stage meeting in Split is likely to be decisive in the tussle for top spot and a guaranteed ticket to Qatar.

The second-placed team will have to navigate the perils of the playoffs in March. 

Russia and Croatia played out a 0-0 draw in Moscow back in September. © Reuters

One man not called on to help the Russian effort is Dzyuba.

Manager Valeri Karpin has left the Zenit St. Petersburg forward out of his squad, the final version of which was revealed on Monday.

That is despite Dzyuba scoring seven goals in 13 games in the Russian Premier League this season, a tally which puts him joint second among his countrymen, behind only 11-goal breakout star Gamid Agalarov.

Last Friday, Dzyuba was on target as a substitute in a 4-1 win in a top-of-the-table meeting with Dynamo Moscow – a goal which made him the outright leading scorer in the history of the league.

Even at 33, Dzyuba continues to offer the threats for which he has become most renowned: a target man who can hold up the ball and bring teammates into play, but more than that, a goalscorer who is surprisingly deft considering his 6ft 4in frame.

Dzyuba’s Russian Premier League record was not the only one he had in his sights at the start of this season.

After scoring in Russia’s crushing 4-1 defeat to Denmark at the European Championships during the summer, Dzyuba moved joint-top of his country’s all-time scoring charts, alongside former teammate Aleksandr Kerzhakov on 30 goals.

Many would have backed Dzyuba to go on and claim that record outright.

As it turns out, the ill-fated game against Denmark in Copenhagen was the last time we saw Dzyuba in action for his country.

He has missed all five of Russia’s ensuing World Cup qualifiers, all of which have been presided over by Karpin after he succeed Stanislav Cherchesov in the wake of the Euro 2020 embarrassment.

Dzyuba scored a penalty against Denmark but that was the last time he played for his country. © Sputnik

Cherchesov and Dzyuba’s fate had appeared intrinsically linked ever since Cherchesov recalled Dzyuba from exile ahead of the 2018 World Cup.

Having spent the previous two years in the international wilderness, Dzyuba returned with a vengeance, being an integral part of Russia’s unlikely run to the World Cup quarter-finals – scoring three times along the way before the penalty shootout agony against Croatia.

‘Dzyubamania’ swept Russia and the big forward was propelled to national hero status, also being elevated to national team captain by Cherchesov.

Cherchesov made Dzyuba his captain. © Sputnik

But things have since gone sour.

A leaked video showing Dzyuba masturbating made unwanted national headlines last November, with President Vladimir Putin even being quizzed on it.

Dzyuba was dropped from the national team by Cherchesov, ostensibly to give him time and space to recover from the scandal, but later returned and even kept the captain’s armband.

However, Russia’s woeful showing at the Euros in the summer – where they finished bottom of a group containing Belgium, Finland and Denmark – spelled the end for Dzyuba’s ally Cherchesov.

By contrast, the arrival of Karpin immediately appeared to signal uncertainty for Dzyuba.

The pair are known for a tetchy relationship from their time at Spartak Moscow, where Dzyuba emerged from the youth ranks and Karpin – as a former Spartak player – took his first steps in management.

Tensions included an infamous row over claims that Dzyuba stole a teammate’s wallet, and while the big forward still managed 17 goals and 15 assists in 73 matches under Karpin, their relationship remained strained even after both had moved on from the club.

Then at Zenit, Dzyuba is even rumored to have almost got into a scrap with Karpin in 2017 when the pair crossed paths at the glitzy Ritz Carlton hotel in Moscow.

Karpin did not name Dzyuba in his latest squad. © Sputnik

Stories like that naturally raised questions on what the future had in store for Dzyuba when Karpin was named as Cherchesov’s replacement in July.  

Sure enough, following a slow start to the season at club level where he was in and out of the Zenit starting XI, Dzyuba also found himself out of Karpin’s first Russia squad, even though the pair were said to have held constructive talks about burying the hatchet.

Karpin seemed to offer an olive branch by being ready to bring Dzyuba back in for the matches against Slovakia and Slovenia last month, only for Dzyuba to decline, claiming he was still struggling to reach full form and fitness.

The fact that Dzyuba had just scored twice in a 3-1 win for Zenit against Rubin Kazan naturally raised more than a few eyebrows.

Fast forward to Karpin’s latest squad for the crunch November qualifiers, and there is no room for Dzyuba again.

Explaining the decision, the 52-year-old Russia boss said this week: “The option with Dzyuba wasn’t considered.

“Last time we hoped that he’d help us. He said he wasn’t ready. Therefore, we didn’t consider it now.”

In a sign of the pettiness of the situation, Dzyuba has apparently ‘unfollowed’ the Russian national team account on Instagram.

“It makes no difference to me that he unsubscribed,” said Karpin. “Ask him when he will sign back.”

Karpin enjoyed a playing career in Russia and Spain before becoming a manager. © Sputnik

As things stand, Karpin is banking on oft-maligned CSKA Moscow forward Anton Zabolotny to do a similar job to Dzyuba for him, while Lokomotiv Moscow forward Fedor Smolov continues to find favor.

Younger talents are being blooded in the team such as Dynamo Moscow’s precocious attacking midfielder Arsen Zakharyan.

As for Dzyuba, his best hope of returning to the set-up could well be if Russia fail in their World Cup bid.

Karpin has only been handed a short-term deal which runs until after the playoffs next March. Reach the World Cup – either automatically or via the playoff route – and Karpin will be backed to stay on in his job.

As long as Karpin is around, it can be assumed Dzyuba would have his work cut out to find his way back into consideration, based on the current state of relations. 

Karpin has made do without Dzyuba thus far. © Reuters

Both men are viewed as uncompromising, often difficult characters who are unwilling to back down; that has made things prickly in the past, and seems as if it will continue to do so.

In immediate terms, the upshot is that Russia’s attempt to reach the 2022 World Cup will be without a player who was their talisman not so long ago.

And should they succeed in making it to Qatar, you wouldn’t count on Artem Dzyuba being there with them.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

© 2021, paradox. All rights reserved.

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