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WORLD CUP 2018: How Russia star Golovin can become the next James Rodriguez

COMMENT: It's June 28, 2014. World Cup round of 16. 80,000 people inside the Maracana. Millions watching around the globe. The nerves, the doubt, the fear, the hopes of Colombia all rest on James Rodriguez's shoulders.

28 minutes into the game and the ball bounces off the 22-year-old's chest. A split second before it drops, the crowd takes a collective breath. Boom. Fernando Muslera has no chance as a rasping volley flies over his head. FIFA later crown the strike 'Goal of the Year', but more importantly, Rodriguez scores once more to lead Colombia to their first ever World Cup quarterfinals.

The stage was set for Rodriguez before his unforgettable performance against Uruguay. And the same can be said for Russia's star man Aleksandr Golovin ahead of Sunday's last-16 clash with Spain.

He may only be 22, but Golovin has been talked about in Russia for years. Within just three seasons after being plucked from the nether regions of Siberia, Golovin had won the U17 European Championships, a senior CSKA debut, his first international cap and goal.

Golovin's meteoric rise culminated with inclusion in Russia's Euro2016 squad. And it was in France when eyes from England, Spain and Italy begun to turn east.

He became a marked man. One to watch. And a season later, when CSKA drew Manchester United in the Champions League group stage, scouts awaited eagerly to see him tested against formidable opposition.

One man left impressed by Golovin's performance against United was former Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger, who had been tracking Golovin through Russian agent, Sandor Varga, since the 2017 Confederations Cup.

A move failed to materialise in January, but Wenger received a chance to make an assessment in person when CSKA dropped into the Europa League and drew the Gunners.

If CSKA's visit to the Emirates was an audition, then Golovin broke a leg. At times he dominated Arsenal's midfield, playing with a fearlessness that far exceeded his age and experience. This mercurial performance, which included a stunning free-kick, increased his stock exponentially.

Such was Golovin's impression on Wenger that Varga believes the 70-year-old will sign him if he returns to management next season.

"I asked Arsene about Golovin, the Frenchman said: 'I do not know what Arsenal will do, but I'll take him for myself," Varga told theSportExpress.

"But if Wenger takes [charge of] any team, Golovin will have another option."

Essential to Golovin's appeal has been his developing versatility. Having started out as a winger, current CSKA boss Viktor Goncharenko moved him into a central role this season and to great effect.

Despite his small frame, he has excelled in his new position due to his tenacity and enthusiasm. Golovin even admitted recently that he's been studying videos of Chelsea defensive midfielder N'Golo Kante.

Blessed with agility and dribbling, honed on the futsal pitches in Siberia, Golovin's creativity knows no bounds. His ability to unlock defences was on full display in Russia's opening Group A match against Saudi Arabia.

Following an injury to CSKA teammate Alan Dzagoev, Golovin was moved into the number 10 role behind Fedor Smolov. He would finish the game with two assists, a marvellous free-kick in a memorable 5-0 win and cemented himself as one of the tournament's brightest prospects.

Golovin's influence on the result was praised by Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho.

"I think Alan Dzagoev was playing quite well but when he came out, the fact that Golovin could go to a more central position, I think it helped the team," said Mourinho, who has been working as a pundit for Russian TV.

"The team became better. Golovin is a playmaker, he's a player that gives the dynamic of the team."

And now as the match against Spain draws nearer, the bigger clubs are watching Golovin's every move. Chelsea are the perceived front-runners, but Arsenal, Juventus and Barcelona have also shown interest.

There has been some skepticism towards the hype. Former Juventus and Russia boss Fabio Capello, who gave Golovin his first international cap, believes it is possibly he could struggle with the rigours of football outside his homeland.

“He has the right grit and a lot of quality. The problem is that when these players go outside Russia they have trouble adapting," said the Italian to Radio Anch'io Sport.

“Until now they haven't shown what they have in Russia when they go outside of their own borders. We'll see for Golovin."

One thing is for certain, Golovin will leave CSKA after the World Cup. But he won't join Juventus, or any other Italian team for that matter, according to his agent, Dmitri Alenichev.

"Juventus' interest in Golovin is quite understandable and it's time for him to go to Europe, but not in Italy," Alenichev told IlBianconero.

"And then the Italian league is very tactical and it is extremely difficult for him to show offensive qualities. I would recommend Spain instead, but not Real Madrid or Barcelona, but some other mid-high-end clubs."

Recent reports have suggested Chelsea are preparing an offer of £27m for Golovin. But CSKA will be hoping a match-winning performance on Sunday can boost their asking price. Just as it did for Monaco with Rodriguez four years ago.

The eventual Golden Boot winner was made the fourth most expensive footballer in the world after the tournament when Real Madrid paid Monaco £63m for his signature.

Not even Rodriguez would've predicted how dramatically his life would change after Brazil. He made it happen by himself with an incredible World Cup. And the same could happen for Aleksandr Golovin.

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Andrew Maclean
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Andrew Maclean

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