Misfiring Danilova hunts a happy ending
In 2005, Russia caused a major upset when they defeated France on penalties to win the final of the UEFA European Women's U-19 Championship.
That they defied expectations was, in large measure, due to the scoring feats of Elena Danilova. The forward was on target in all Russia's games except the first, notching nine goals in all to become the tournament's top scorer.
This year, though the Russians ceded their European crown when they lost to Germany in the semi finals, Danilova was again in unstoppable form, scoring seven times to regain her title as the tournament's top markswoman.
It is, therefore, something of surprise therefore that the Spartak Moscow forward has yet to open her account at the FIFA U-20 Women's World Championship, and FIFA.com caught up with the rising star of Russian women's football to find out just why the goals have dried up.
"All strikers go through spells when everything they touch seems to produce a goal," she said. "At the 2005 European Championship in Hungary I never expected that I'd score so many goals. When I look back at those games now, I think to myself: 'That can't be me!'
"Now, I'm going through a different kind of spell. I really need to get a goal, as it's starting to make me feel a bit nervous."
She may not be scoring, but nobody can claim that the 19-year old is not playing her part. Danilova has worked her socks off, contributing among other things the key passes that produced the winning goal in the 3-2 win over New Zealand and the decisive opener in the 1-1 draw with Australia . Not that it is serving to placate the player herself.
"It's great when you play an important pass, but I'm a striker and my job is to score goals," she said. "That's what I enjoy doing mos. But for some reason, at the moment things aren't quite working out for me. I know that I'm still doing a good job for the team, but it's the goals that are most important for me."
Ploughing a lone furrow
In the last two Group A games, Danilova found herself with a new partner up front. Though nominally a defender, Anna Kozhnikova has been successfully redeployed in the shadow striker role, scoring vital goals against both the Kiwis and Young Matildas.
"It suits me. She's easy to play with," says Danilova of her versatile colleague. "You can tell that it's not her normal position, but she's very good in the air. I always know that she'll win the headers and knock the ball onto me in space. Likewise, I know that if I put the ball on her head, she will score."
In Russia's previous games, Danilova has tended to lack adequate support from her midfield colleagues, and has had to lead most of the attacks alone.
"For the three years that I've been in the team we have always played with just the one forward. So I'm used to starting attacks from deep, and having to beat three or even four defenders, though it doesn't always come off.
"It can be very difficult when you have to win the ball and hold it - it saps your strength. After all, my job is to score, not to fight for the ball in the middle of the park."
It has already been widely suggested that Russia's coach Valentin Grishin should lighten the burden on Danilova's shoulders and allow her to focus on her main role - one for which she is evidently so well equipped. "The main thing for a striker is speed. If you are fast, you can do anything," says the forward, whose pace ranks among her most notable attributes. "Though, if you're going to beat defenders and score goals, you need technique too," she adds.
Danilova also admits that, when it comes to scoring, she likes to do so in style - and with a measure of impudence. "There's nothing I like better than nutmegging the keeper," she grinned. "It's not that I want to humiliate her, or at least, only in a footballing sense. I also love scoring at the near post, because keepers very rarely expect you to shoot there. Basically, I love doing anything that upsets the goalkeeper!"
China pose technical test
So far, Danilova has not managed to upset any of the opposition keepers. She has, however, still helped the host nation reach the last eight, where they will face China PR, the team Grishin singled out the as the Group B team he would most like to meet.
"We know (the Chinese) well," agreed Danilova. "Nigeria are a very strong, physically tough team, and we are already carrying several injuries. Against the Chinese it should be a more technical game, though that doesn't mean it won't be a battle too, of course. They are a strong team, but I think they will be worried about us. We'll be able to play our game against them, and we're capable of beating them."
At Thailand 2004, Russia were missing Danilova - who was on club duty - but still reached the quarter final stage before losing 4-2 to Brazil in extra time . This time, they are determined to go at least one step further. "Reaching the quarter final is not enough for us," vowed their star striker. "Our aim is to finish in the top three, at least. We just need to make sure we're properly focused, and that we don't play like we did against the Australians."
Finally, the conversation switches to life away from the pitch, and Danilova reveals that she and her team-mates have been relaxing by watching an old Russian cinema classic. "The girls recently got together to watch 'Love and Pigeons'," she said. "We were getting sick of watching American movies."
This may be true, but Danilova and her team-mates would gladly settle for a Hollywood-style happy ending at Russia 2006.