It’s not long to go till the Premier League enters what Sir Alex Ferguson once termed ‘squeaky-bum time.’
As it stands, Manchester City — seeking back-to-back title wins — are running away with English football’s top prize.
For all the talk surrounding one particular void in their squad since losing the club’s record goalscorer, Sergio Aguero, City are doing so without a centre-forward of excellence.
Harry Kane was linked with a move last summer but, as we now know, England’s leading marksman would remain at Tottenham.
As we head into the final stretch, the chances Kane will defend his ‘Golden Boot’ look remote. In fact, in this jumbled-up campaign where so many games have been postponed, only two players have amassed 10 or more goals.
🎶 𝙃𝙚'𝙨 𝙖 𝙡𝙖𝙙 𝙛𝙧𝙤𝙢 𝙋𝙤𝙧𝙩𝙪𝙜𝙖𝙡… 🎶 pic.twitter.com/RcfEAXvIyD
— Liverpool FC (@LFC) January 21, 2022
Mohamed Salah, representing Egypt at the Africa Cup of Nations, is leading the way on 16 goals, with teammate Diogo Jota his nearest challenger. Jota reached double figures at Tottenham last month to set a new personal best, surpassing the nine he managed for the Reds last season and Wolves in 2018/19.
The Portuguese forward is pulling up trees beyond the Premier League, too. So far he’s bagged one Champions League strike and three in the EFL Cup, including a brace at Arsenal (0-2) to send Liverpool into a 13th final. After watching his performance on Thursday night, former West Ham and Manchester City player Trevor Sinclair told talkSPORT: “Kane’s not quite at it, Lukaku isn’t firing. I think Jota is the best centre-forward in the league.
“I’ve seen Jota play for Portugal and he reminds me of a more forward-thinking Bernardo Silva,” he added. “He’s got that tenacity and personality. He never backs down. He’s great in the air.”
Having arrived in the summer of 2020 as what looked to be a squad player, Jota bided his time and when an opportunity presented itself — Roberto Firmino sidelined by injury — he grabbed it with both hands.
Across the past season-and-a-half, Jota boasts the Premier League’s highest non-penalty xG (0.58) when averaged out on a per-90-minute basis.
He’s arguably the Premier League’s most balanced finisher, too, in that Jota is the only player in the division to score at least six goals using his right foot, left foot and head since the start of 2020/21.
Although somewhat correctly categorised as a ‘centre-forward’ by Sinclair, on account of the fact he starts centrally of Liverpool’s front-three, Jota naturally gravitates towards the left channel.
He in fact started on that flank in their Emirates Stadium win to accommodate Firmino, with Salah and Sadio Mane on international duty.
But exactitude aside, who could challenge the claim that he is English football’s preeminent central attacker at present?
Sitting one goal behind Jota is Jamie Vardy, who has netted once in his last eight league matches. The Leicester City striker has been injured since December but has played a comparable number of minutes to the Liverpool forward. Likewise, after starting the season like a house on fire, Michail Antonio has managed two goals in his most recent 13 top-flight appearances.
This season’s eye-catching performer from outta nowhere is Emmanuel Dennis, a reliably steady source of goals who has scored in six of his last 10 league appearances for a Watford side that fails to make the most of them more often than not. The Nigerian has five assists, too, so is conceivably Jota’s closest challenger for the accolade bestowed by Sinclair.
Onto another recent headline-maker: Cristiano Ronaldo is traditionally a wide forward, but over half of his 1,400 minutes of his league play at Manchester United have come at centre-forward. The 36-year-old is arguably the greatest goalscorer in the history of European football but trails Jota in this respect, and few would be surprised to see it is the younger Portuguese star who boasts the more complete profile this campaign.
Three-time Premier League Golden Shoe winner Kane began this campaign with just one goal in his opening 13 appearances. He’s since netted four times in his last five outings, all of them coming under Antonio Conte’s watch.
The energetic Italian tactician had Romelu Lukaku leading Inter Milan’s attack last season but the Chelsea marksman, who many felt levelled up in Serie A, has flattered to deceive. To date the Belgian international produced five goals across 15 matches and has frozen when coming up against fellow ‘big six’ rivals.
But if there’s any pattern worth acknowledging among those mentioned above (besides burn-out), it is that unlike Lukaku all of them either have regular strike partners or play in a settled front three. No wonder he was recently pining for Lautaro Martinez. Together in black-and-blue they shared the field 78 times and combined to score 19 goals, with Lukaku netting ten of those.
2022 EFL Cup final odds with William Hill*
- Chelsea to lift the trophy: Evens
- Liverpool to lift the trophy: 8/11
All odds accurate at the time of writing. You must be 18 or over to gamble. For more information, visit begambleaware.org
Even so, the Chelsea striker has a chance to go head-to-head with Jota in the forthcoming EFL Cup final against Liverpool, and right now “the best centre-forward in the league” is looking more likely to find the net at Wembley.