Fyodor Smolov - Russia's last best World Cup hope
Russia's World Cup hopes hinge on the right foot of a journeyman forward who plies his trade with a small club from the provinces and is all but unknown abroad.
Fyodor Smolov intends to change that in Friday's friendly against the superstars of Brazil in Moscow followed by Tuesday's match with France in Saint Petersburg.
The 28-year-old has quietly turned into a goal machine who has led the Russian league in scoring for the past two seasons and is doing so again this year.
He has transformed his club Krasnodar into a title contender in the process and now has his sights set on one of Europe's Big Five leagues.
And Smolov's golden streak is a blessing for a Russian side that is going into two of their biggest warmup matches decimated by injuries and looking for a lift.
The telegenic number nine with a Jesus tattoo on his left shoulder is Russia's last reliable striker still standing and their main hope for progressing from the group stage for the first time in a World Cup. He has already scored 11 times in 28 matches for his country.
- 'Serious football' -
Smolov was a prodigy who scored his first goal for Moscow's storied police team Dynamo at the tender age of 17.
But he only appeared in three matches that season and was soon lent out to Dutch high-flyers Feyenoord.
This was only the start of Smolov's long growing pains.
He was bounced back and forth between four clubs in five seasons while scoring just 11 goals in the process.
Coaches were tempted by his killer instincts but disappointed by what he produced on the pitch.
By the time he arrived in Krasnodar -- a team only formed in 2008 -- Smolov sat down and had a good talk with himself about where his career was headed.
"I decided to prove to myself that I am capable of playing serious football," he said in a recent interview.
Smolov made sweeping changes in his attitude during training and even revised his diet.
The investment paid off quickly. He began scoring goals for his club and soon piqued the interest of former Russia coach Fabio Capello.
The Italian "called me up to the national squad and told me not to spare myself -- ever," Smolov recalled.
"That is why every time I feel exhausted after practise, I remember his words and continue working."
He won the Russian scoring title with 20 goals in 2016 and was crowned again last year despite missing almost a month with a knee injury.
Smolov now hopes that his Russian streak ends at three as he looks to secure a spot with a major club such as Germany's Borussia Dortmund.
Former German international and Dynamo Moscow veteran Kevin Kuranyi said Dortmund had consulted him about the player.
"They rate him very highly and I believe he can seriously strengthen Borussia's attack," Moscow's Sport Express newspaper quoted Kuranyi as saying.
Smolov has already turned down a lucrative offer from a team in China because of his European dreams.
"This is my goal and I work hard to achieve it," he said.
© 2018 AFP