Saturday 19 August 2017

If only hotshot strikers would put all their energy into golden boots

Alexis Sanchez shows his frustration after being substituted. Photo: Nick Potts/PA Wire
Alexis Sanchez shows his frustration after being substituted. Photo: Nick Potts/PA Wire

Paul Hayward

For the first time since 1994-'95, at least six strikers are on course to reach 20 goals in a Premier League season.

It could reach seven, if Sergio Aguero gives anger management a try. But with this gilded age comes instability that Chelsea and Arsenal fans must find exhausting.

Diego Costa and Alexis Sanchez, who have each scored 14 times, are stuck in a news loop of speculation, sulks and stand-offs.

It never felt like this 22 years ago, when Alan Shearer, Robbie Fowler, Les Ferdinand, Stan Collymore, Andy Cole and Jurgen Klinsmann all passed 20.

Chelsea manager Antonio Conte has declaresd Costa ready to return to first-team action after conflict over the state of his back and the gazillion-pound salary on offer to him in China.

Sanchez, who objected to being taken off when Arsenal were 4-0 up at Swansea (what manager would leave their best player on, at 4-0 up against the league's bottom side?), leads the way in the big five European leagues in chances created, with 55. Yet his Arsenal career is turning into political melodrama, with dark implications for Arsene Wenger and the board.

Agitating

A star agitating to leave for more money is a problem, but a manageable one. You either pay him more or prepare his P45.

With Sanchez, though, there is this inference that the club's 'lack of ambition' might drive him away. Not in the transfer market so much as on the field of play, where he is starting to look frustrated by the frailties around him.

This could be an act. A 'want-away striker', in old Fleet Street parlance, knows how to deflect fan anger on to the owners. Off he goes to China or PSG while the mob descend on the board.

There has always been a measure of this in football. But it feels now like a permanent soundtrack, threatening our enjoyment.

When Burnley come to Arsenal, a lens will be trained on every nuance of Sanchez's mood. As for looming contract expirations, there is no escape from that countdown clock.

Sanchez, a superb player with a strong theatrical streak (witness the kicked gloves, the hood thrown over the head), set off another news fuse when writing on Instagram: "Strong people smile with a broken heart. They cry with the doors closed and fight battles that no one knows."

Read more: Costa set for Chelsea recall

Careful, though. This might have been a reflection on his cousin, who died in Chile from a brain tumour, aged 43. If the Instagram post had nothing to do with Sanchez's restlessness, it certainly affirmed the level of interest in his every utterance: the scrutiny that passes for a parallel pastime in football (for fans as much as the media).

It was the Premier League itself, meanwhile, that drew attention to the current goalscoring trend. The league can't be blamed for shouting its own good news.

Costa, Sanchez and Zlatan Ibrahimovic each have 14. Harry Kane has 13, and Jermain Defoe and Romelu Lukaku are on 12.

Aguero (11) is also a sound bet to reach 20, even if he, too, is on shifting ground.

With Gabriel Jesus ready to play for City, starting with the Spurs game, Aguero's exalted status no longer seems secure.

Maybe we need to get used to the idea that volatility is built into the system; that a race for the golden boot is always going to be accompanied by a struggle to hang on to stars, to stop them high-stepping it to China.

Of the six on track for 20 goals, only Ibrahimovic and Kane are pretty much free of speculation. That could soon change again with Kane, who is seeing the ball beautifully.

Can we just have the goals, though, please, in this good title race, without the accompanying instability?

Meanwhile, two war horses need one more hit when Stoke take on Manchester United.

One for Peter Crouch would take him to 100 in the league, and a 250th in United colours would lift Wayne Rooney above Bobby Charlton.

A 1-1 draw, with both scoring, would give us a break from the Costa and Sanchez noise.

(© Daily Telegraph, London)

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