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Golden Boot race: Goals dry up for stars at Premier League's smaller clubs

Golden Boot race: Goals dry up for stars at Premier League's smaller clubs
From ESPN - January 18, 2018

There have been inquests aplenty. The superstar strikers are not scoring in the copious quantities they were in the early weeks of the season. Romelu Lukaku, Alvaro Morata and Alexandre Lacazette cost the best part of 200 million between them last summer. Between the start of October and the end of Sunday, they scored a combined 14 goals in 60 club games.

They may not attract much sympathy from their counterparts elsewhere, and not just because of their sizeable salaries or the quality of the supply lines at elite clubs. Because a glimpse at the race for the Golden Boot is notable not just for who is in it -- Lukaku in fifth place, Morata sharing sixth and Lacazette tied for 10th -- but for who is not: the underdog attackers, the forwards delivering goals for smaller clubs.

Because only one striker for a club outside the top six has more league goals than Chelsea's left wing-back Marcos Alonso this season. He is Leicester's Jamie Vardy and it is hard to brand a penalty-taking, title-winning England international who has been linked with Manchester United an underdog. He is the lone representative of the bottom 14 clubs' forward lines among the 19 men with at least seven top-flight goals.

It reflects the trend that specialist scorers at the lesser clubs can be outscored by the growing band of wingers and attacking midfielders at the favourites, players who have broader skill sets but are still prolific: most obviously Mohamed Salah, but also Raheem Sterling, Leroy Sane, Alexis Sanchez, Anthony Martial, Jesse Lingard and the now-departed Philippe Coutinho. It also shows the forwards found further down the table are being outgunned by supposedly less attacking performers: Riyad Mahrez, Wayne Rooney, whose goals have mainly come from midfield, and, rather improbably, Abdoulaye Doucoure. Now none, Vardy apart, have more than six.

It also marks a stark change from the past. Last season, five forwards got at least 15 league goals for teams in the bottom 14: Lukaku, Josh King, Christian Benteke, Jermain Defoe and Fernando Llorente. The previous season, Defoe and Odion Ighalo did, with Troy Deeney close behind. Rewind to 2014-15 and Charlie Austin was the division's fourth-highest scorer with 18 goals for relegated QPR; Saido Berahino, strange as it sounds now, was only four goals adrift of him. In 2013-14, only five men scored more goals than Swansea's Wilfried Bony. In 2012-13, Benteke delivered 19 goals for Aston Villa and Rickie Lambert 15 for Southampton, who finished twinned on 41 points.

Rewind through the years and the leaderboard has invariably featured valiant challengers from unfancied sides -- until now. There are various reasons, most obviously the impotence of Benteke and Defoe, who tend to be constants in the top 15 scorers, in injury-hit seasons and Everton's sale of Lukaku, the other ever-present, and failure to properly replace him until Cenk Tosun's January move. Similarly, Llorente's move to Tottenham, like Swansea's earlier sale of Bony, indicates that the top clubs can pluck reliable scorers from their inferiors to fill their bench.

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