PARIS (AP) — The race to finish as the French league’s top scorer was expected to be a three-way contest between Paris Saint-Germain forwards Neymar, Kylian Mbappe and Edinson Cavani.
But while that trio is scoring regularly as expected, a couple of unheralded players are keeping pace.
Nantes striker Emiliano Sala is matching Mbappe at the top of the scoring chart with 12 goals, while fleet-footed Lille forward Nicolas Pepe is even with Neymar with 11. Cavani, the league’s top scorer for the past two seasons, trails with 10.
Sala and Pepe are carrying their team’s attacks this season, and both have vastly different profiles.
The 28-year-old Sala is a late developer who has already equaled his career-best haul of 12 — achieved in the past two seasons with Nantes — in only 15 league games this season.
A powerful and direct player, the tall Argentine is dangerous and uses his strength in the air exceptionally well. Using Sala as a foil has also helped attacking midfielder Gabriel Boschilia get goals, and their understanding on the field is blossoming.
Sala is a cross between an ideal target man and a good link-up player. He is also unselfish and hard-working, much to the delight of disciplinarian coach Vahid Halilhodzic — who scored 111 goals for Nantes as a similar type of center forward.
Nantes was languishing in the relegation zone in October, but Sala’s goals have helped to stabilize the club. Nantes has lost only one of its past eight games overall.
Pepe is well on course to beat his career-best of 13 league goals last season, when he was also Lille’s top scorer. But it was for a much different cause last time — his goals helped Lille to narrowly avoid relegation.
Now his goals are driving Lille’s quest for a Champions League place next season. As the season approaches the halfway point, Lille is scrapping with Montpellier, Lyon and Marseille for second place and automatic entry into Europe’s elite competition.
Therefore, Lille would be wise not to cash in on Pepe during next month’s transfer window, even though offers for the 23-year-old Ivory Coast forward are likely to be plentiful.
Pepe is elusive and strong and has a great burst of speed over short distances. He is equally dangerous when running through midfield from deep-lying positions or close to the penalty area, where he has excellent close control and the ability to shoot quickly and accurately.
In addition, he is also cool under pressure, as demonstrated last weekend when his penalty six minutes into injury time rescued a point for Lille.
Playing alongside Pepe has reaped rewards for 22-year-old forward Jonathan Bamba, who has seven league goals in 17 games and is also enjoying the best season of his young career.
While Marseille teammate Florian Thauvin continues to score freely, Valere Germain’s goals have dried up.
After netting a career-high 22 league goals in 35 games last season, Thauvin has an impressive 11 in 15 so far. But Germain, who won the league with Monaco in 2017, is struggling to find his form and has scored only three in 16.
Thauvin is perceived as carrying Marseille’s attack, with fans demanding a better center forward.
A fed up Germain has stopped reading critical comments about him online.
“Social networks amplify all of this whereas before they didn’t exist. Everything goes so quickly these days,” Germain said Wednesday in an interview with local newspaper La Provence. “Some people act like idiots on the networks and others listen to them. I looked at (networks) more often before, but these days it’s very rare.”
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