The Real Footie Analyst

The race for the European Golden Boot hots up

Ronaldo-vs-MessiWho will it be? Lionel Messi. followed closely by fellow La Liga maverick, Cristiano Ronaldo, are both odds on favourites to win this years Golden Boot, which goes to the top domestic league scorer in Europe.

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Lionel Messi – Barcelona

Games 38
Goals 39
Value: £100m

The little man from Rosario is, surely, now recognised as the greatest player on the planet, his feats for Barca acquiring him the status of a living legend.

And rightly so, for Messi, on his day – and that, of course, is most days – represents a player who comes almost from a different footballing dimension.

At times it is hard to believe Messi is only human, as he creates space where none exists, finds the key to unlocking any defence, pops up to score with a rapier thrust.

Such talent means that, were he on the market, the auction price might go stratospheric, certainly destroying the current world record place paid by Real Madrid for the Argentine’s only real rival for the label of top dog.

What makes Messi stand apart, for many, is his sheer nervelessness, his courage on the ball, his willingness to put his frail-looking body on the line time and time again.

He knows he is the one player every opposing manager wants to target, to neutralise. He knows that physical bullying is often the only answer.

But he keeps on coming back for more, never hides, simply treats his markers with the disdain – and at times respect – a matador has for the nastiest bull in the corrida.

What makes it all the more incredible is that, had Barca not paid for his human growth hormone treatment when he arrived as a waif-like 11-year-old in 1999, we might never have had the chance to witness his talents.

Thankfully, Barcelona agreed that the cost of £600 per month would prove money well spent and his return for the club has repaid that investment hundreds of times over.

Messi may yet not have emulated Diego Maradona when it comes to deeds wearing the pale blue and white striped shirt of his homeland.

In Barca colours, though, he is without peer.

****

Cristiano Ronaldo – Real Madrid

Games 34
Goals 35
Value: £90m

If Jose Mourinho does indeed take the La Liga crown off Pep Guardiola, even the Special One may have to accept that it is down to the special talent of a man he once publicly derided as ill-educated and lacking class.

The pair, both represented by Portuguese super-agent Jorge Mendes, appear to have kissed and made up since, although you do suspect more than a sliver of suspicion remains.

Nevertheless, Mourinho has set up Madrid to feed the talents of his most reliable and remarkable source of goals, to mutual benefit and delight.

Incredibly, Ronaldo has already scored three more goals in less than three seasons at the Bernebeu (121) than he did in his entire six-year stint at Old Trafford, when many Manchester United fans truly believed they had seen him at his best.

That argument has been dismissed by the sheer consistency of his displays in Madrid and while Messi may, to Ronaldo’s unhappiness, be rated higher in the firmament by most judges, the Portuguese may have the final laugh this season.

He has been majestic, too, scoring all sorts of goals, from those peerless free-kicks hit with stunning power, to instinctive strikes from distance, tap-ins, headers. All come alike to a player born to score.

Where Messi exhibits modesty in all things, Ronaldo is far more of an extrovert – preening, pouting, but above all playing.

He is a showman, of course. Boastful and at times irritating.

But when you have such a talent as he possesses, you should not be expected, always, to have to hide that light under a bushel – not that anybody could ever accuse Ronaldo of being a shrinking violet.

It has not always been easy. Indeed, even in this of all seasons, Ronaldo has been accused by some Madrid fans of being the Iberian equivalent of a flat track bully, only turning it on against the lesser teams. The weight of goals, however, represents the perfect retort. Along with “look at the table”.

****

Klaas-Jan Huntelaar – Schalke

Games 32
Goals 30
Value: £30m

The beefy Dutch striker looked to have made a leap beyond his talents when his big-money moves to Real Madrid and then Milan saw him fail to shine.

It was a rare taste of relative failure for a striker who found himself compared with both Marco Van Basten and Ruud Van Nistelrooy as he grew up in public at Heerenveen and Ajax, where he scored a staggering 76 goals in 92 league games before moving to Spain.

At Madrid it did not work, weighed down by the £25million fee and managing to bag only eight goals in his year at the Bernebeu before being shipped out to Italy.

Milan, too, failed to see the best of the Dutchman, his goal ratio dropping even further amid doubts about his technique, prowess and mental capacity to cope with the pressures of playing for a European giant.

The goals kept coming for Holland, albeit sporadically, as he found himself competing with the likes of Robin Van Persie for a starting shirt, yet Huntelaar seemed to be one of those who would prove an under-achiever.

Indeed, when Huntelaar – long linked with a move to the Premier League which has still yet to happen – moved to Schalke in 2010 for only £10m, allowing the San Siro side to bring in Zlatan Ibrahimovic, it looked as if he might be disappearing into a spiral of decline.

Yet that move to Germany has galvanised and energised the man who has not stopped scoring since.

There were two in the German Cup Final thrashing of Duisberg that ended Schalke’s nine-year trophy drought, although he only scored 13 in total.

But with 16 goals in 20 appearances for Holland since that move to Schalke – including a list-leading 14 in Euro 2012 qualifiers – Huntelaar has carried that form into this season, living up to all those early predictions.

Huntelaar is enjoying his football again, the doubts that had shrouded him cast aside. He will be a handful for anybody in Poland and Ukraine this summer.

****

Robin Van Persie – Arsenal

Games 33
Goals 28
Value: £40m

The big question for Van Persie is one he alone can answer – where does he want to be playing next season?

Having landed the Arsenal captaincy following the departure of Cesc Fabregas, the striker has shown why he deserved the honour, leading from the front where others might have gone missing.

Without Van Persie’s goals it is arguable that Arsenal’s season might have long been over already, rather than seemingly facing the realistic end when Milan come to London in two weeks’ time.

Van Persie’s career at Arsenal had long been disrupted by injuries. Indeed it was only last season, seven years after arriving from Feyenoord, that he made his 100th Premier League start.

But over the past 14 months, Van Persie has been as good a striker as any in Europe, scoring goals with a stunning regularity.

The 28 so far this season have come on the back of a remarkable second half to last season, which saw Van Persie score 21 in 23 outings after January 1.

Yet with the goals bringing no reward in terms of silverware, and Van Persie watching what Fabregas has already won in his short spell in Barcelona, it would be no surprise if the striker decided the grass is greener elsewhere.

Van Persie has Arsenal over a barrel as well, with his Emirates contract having less than 18 months to run.

If he wants out and Arsenal refuse to sell this summer, he can go for nothing in 2013, laving as huge hole that would have to be filled with no money.

The onus is very much of Van Persie to make the next move. In the meantime, though, he will aim to keep on doing what he has done all season so far.

****

Mario Gomez – Bayern Munich

Games 31
Goals 27
Value: £35m

With a Spanish mother and German father, Gomez grew up in a mixed family and for quite a while “mixed” would have summed up his career as well.

German Footballer of the Year at the age of just 22 as his goals led Stuttgart to the Bundesliga crown in 2007, “Super Mario” seemed anything but super when he first moved to Munich two years later.

His failure to transfer that prolific club form to the international stage was an albatross on his back, one that saw many quick to write him off for both club and country.

No goals at Euro 2008, despite Germany reaching the final, as he failed to gel alongside Miroslav Klose, made his German record £28m move to Munich one greeted with surprise.

Gomez had struggled in his first campaign at the Allianz Arena, scoring just 10 goals, and the 2010 World Cup was a personal disappointment, too, once again failing to prove himself capable of scoring on the highest international stage.

But while Klose had been the man in South Africa, things changed on Gomez’ return to Germany as he utilised his pace and strength.

Five hat-tricks helped him to a Bundesliga-leading 28 goals as Klose, first choice for his country, found himself marginalised, with Gomez was one taking centre-stage, leading to the veteran’s exit.

And Gomez has maintained that run of form this term, clocking up 50 goals in the calendar yar of 2011 including a superb hat-trick against Napoli – half of his group stage tally of six – in the Champions League.

Now it is Gomez who is likely to lead the line for Joachim Loew this summer, a new spearhead for the side who will be heavily-backed to depose Spain as champions of Europe.

And if he keeps on scoring goals at the rate he has done over the past two campaigns, and breaks that tournament duck, even Bayern may find themselves powerless to resist the external predators.

***

Zlatan Ibrahimovic – AC Milan

Games 27
Goals 22
Value: £45m

The Swede is part hero, part anti-hero in his homeland, where criticism of his talents from England causes outbreaks of national indignation.

But after too many failures against Premier league sides over recent season, Arsenal discovered to costly effect just what the real Zlatan (as he is simply known in Sweden) is all about.

Far quicker than a man of his build should be, with natural balletic instincts – and the hair-trigger temperament of a boxer – Ibrahimovic cuts an enigmatic figure, on a par with Eric Cantona.

His exit from Ajax, after he was accused of deliberately injuring Rafael van der Vaart in a training session, says everything about a man who walks with trouble as his partner in life.

In terms of success, though, he has hugely outstripped anything Cantona can offer.

For seven successive seasons, at Juventus, Inter, Barcelona and Milan, Ibrahimovic has been in the side that finished the season top of the table – even if Juve’s final two title wins were subsequently stripped for other reasons.

He has scored plenty, too, including 29 in his final year at Inter before moving to the Nou Camp as Jose Mourinho opted to swap him for the blistering pace of Samuel Eto’o.

At the Nou Camp he fell out with Pap Guardiola, accusing the coach of favouring Lionel Messi, but the move back to the familiar surrounds of the San Siro did little to suggest he has changed – either as a serial winner, or a serial problem-causer.

The past few weeks summed that up, with Ibrahimovic serving a three-game domestic ban either side of the Arsenal match for needlessly slapping Napoli defender Salvatore Aronica.

What is missing in his trophy cabinet is a Champions League medal and while Milan are outsiders despite their destruction of the Gunners, this could be the year he puts that right as well.

*****

Wayne Rooney – Manchester United

Games 29
Goals 22
Value: £50m

Still, without doubt, the one big threat for England. Still, without question, the jewel in the Manchester United crown as well.

And while Rooney may have had his ups and downs with Sir Alex Ferguson over recent seasons, he looks like the one player the Old Trafford club would least like to see depart for pastures yonder.

The Scouser may not quite have become the player we all wanted him to be when he burst onto the scene with that wonder-goal for Everton against Arsenal at the age of 16 or lit up Euro 2004 when still a teenager.

Indeed, his tournaments since have been pale imitations, unfit in body in 2006, scarcely better in mind four years later.

But Rooney has matured, as both player and man, and if there are occasions when his form dips – spells when he doesn’t look like buying a goal – nobody could ever question his effort and application.

The changes in Rooney’s play have seen him develop wider instincts and positional intelligence, dropping into a link role, sometimes even deeper, when required for the good of the team.

To witness his importance for England, you only have to see the extent to which Fabio Capello went to get his initial three-match Euro 2012 ban reduced. The former England boss knew he simply had to select him, come what may.

Of course, Rooney’s close-range miss in Basel, during one of those blips that he is prone to undergoing, may have been crucial in United’s early exit from the Champions League. He will not want to be reminded of it.

Yet the response to that adversity – which seems now to have been more about his frustrations and anger over his own moment of stupidity in Montenegro – has been typical, with 10 goals in two months, including those terrific penalties to drag United back from the brink against Chelsea.

Rooney still has plenty to prove for United this season, with the title up for grabs and the possibility of Europa League redemption. His performances once he has served his two-game ban in Ukraine will also be under real scrutiny.

*****

Antonio Di Natale – Udinese

Games 27
Goals 21
Value: £5m

Born in Naples but likely to finish his career having never played for his home city club.

Di Natale, though, is a man going out on a high and while at the veteran stage of his career, turning 35 in October, he is arguably having the best spell of his professional life as the skipper of the most attack-minded football side in Serie A.

The attention in Italy may have long gone on the likes of Inzaghi, Ibrahimovic and Eto’o yet it is Di Natale who has been Serie A top scorer for the past two seasons and favourite now to complete an impressive hat-trick, the first since Michel Platini for Juventus in the mid-80s.

Always blessed with pace and dribbling instincts that were honed in an eight-year spell with modest Empoli, where he scored a goal every three games and reached double figures on three occasions.

But the move to Udinese was crucial in his development, initially alongside Vincenzo Iaquinta and David Di Michele as the Frulian side finished fourth to claim a Champions League place in 2005.

Since then, Di Natale has become the fulcrum of the Udinese side, wearing the captain’s armband with pride.

In 2010 his 29 goals broke Oliver Bierhoff’s club record mark as he became Italian Footballer of the Year despite Udinese finishing just three places above the drop zone.

Last season was far more successful for the club, with Di Natale linking superbly with Chilean winger Alexis Sanchez and claiming 28 goals as Francesco Guidolin guided his side back into a play-off for a place in the European elite, which was killed off by Arsenal in August.

That disappointment, and the loss of Sanchez to Barcelona, has not dimmed Di Natale’s fervour or scoring instincts, with 17 in Serie A already as Udinese currently lead the fight for the third and final Champions League spot for next season.

Di Natale knows he will never make a big move, never play for a major club. Yet he is a local hero in Udine, with a chance of ending his decade on the fringes of the Italy squad by leading the line in Poland and Ukraine this summer. He would love to go out on the biggest high.

Source: Mirror

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