When we think of European football’s leading goalscorers, we tend to think of the feted, those who have been seemingly destined for greatness from day one. Even beyond and before Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, the elite that spring to mind are usually fully developed versions of prodigies; Thierry Henry or Sergio Aguero.
In recent weeks, Kylian Mbappe has tacked himself onto that list with his burgeoning exploits for Monaco. Yet, in fact, the 18-year-old might be considered atypical, given that three of Europe’s most prolific marksmen of the moment are players who were as far from the template of academy starlet as is possible.
Andrea Belotti and Bas Dost top the scoring charts in Italy and Portugal, respectively, while Anthony Modeste is just one goal behind Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang at the summit of the Bundesliga scoring table after his hat-trick against Hertha Berlin at the weekend. You really would struggle to find a more unlikely trio to be putting their respective leagues' defences to the sword.
Let’s start with Belotti. Il Gallo—The Rooster, the nickname he nods to with the bird’s comb that he mimes in goal celebrations—is the youngest of them at 23, but he has paid his dues further down the pyramid. He started out in the third tier with AlbinoLeffe and then in Serie B with Palermo before their promotion, which he contributed to alongside Paulo Dybala.
In the meantime, we’ve seen every bead of sweat Belotti has expired to get here. He’s not the prettiest of strikers, but a relentless harrier, determined and focused. For the record, there simply is no doubt—Belotti is as good as Italian strikers get at the moment, and he has been for a spell of going on for 18 months. As we enter the international break he has no peer from any nation, statistically-speaking, leading the Capocannoniere race with 22 goals so far.
The numbers also tell you about the sheer versatility of Belotti’s game. His 22 in Serie A incorporate nine with his right foot, five with his left and eight with his head. Considering he leads the line in a 4-3-3 with his club and can adapt to being part of a front two for Italy, it’s understandable that when Toro inked him to a new four-and-a-half-year deal in December (see below, from the club’s official Twitter account), president Urbano Cairo made sure a whopping €100 million release clause was included.
The growing feeling is that this might not put off suitors forever. Sporting director Gianluca Petrachi claimed in January, weeks after Belotti signed that deal, that La Granata rejected a €65 million offer for him from Arsenal, which the north Londoners later denied, as per Sky Sport Italia (via the Mirror). His aggressive style appears made for the Premier League, however.
Dost, on the other hand, may be beyond the point of a huge move, with his 28th birthday coming up in May. Not that he’s exactly moping about it. Having visibly become very frustrated in his final season at Wolfsburg, the Dutchman is clearly enjoying his installation as the main man at Sporting Clube de Portugal, who he joined a few days before the closure of last summer’s transfer window.
Since then, it’s simply been an avalanche of goals—more than a goal per game, with 24 scored in 23 Liga matches for Sporting so far, making him the competition’s top scorer by a clear margin of eight.
At the current rate he is on course to match Jonas’ huge total of 32 for cross-city rivals Benfica last season, which was the highest individual total in the Portuguese top flight since Mario Jardel put away 42 for Sporting in 2001-02, the last season in which the club won the title. It’s some going for a player who, as Sporting pointed out in the below tweet, didn’t even arrive until the fourth game of the season.
It is a testament to Dost’s never-say-never character that he has managed it. He is Sporting’s record signing, at €10 million, and this campaign has hardly rolled out in the smoothest manner. Jorge Jesus’ team were eliminated from Europe before Christmas, have dropped out of the title race and the highest-paid coach in the country has seen his position come under intense speculation.
Somehow, while adapting to a new league, Dost has managed to block it all out and just get on with scoring goals. Sporting will end the season trophyless and still without a Liga title since 2002, but they have some optimism for the future in the form of Dost.
Dost is a good man to lead them forward, having fought for everything he has. Having shone at Wolfsburg in their excellent 2014-15—when he really fought his way into the side before hitting a purple patch—he was 25 when he made his debut for the Netherlands, in a Euro 2016 qualifier against Turkey in Amsterdam. He can reasonably hope to build his international career on the back of this season.
Modeste hopes for an international future, too, with France, though his prospects don’t look so bright, given that even the prolific Alexandre Lacazette didn’t make Didier Deschamps’ latest squad. That he is so loved at Cologne is a consolation, though, as a Europa League place would be, and they are now into the top six and a European qualification spot after his heroics against Hertha on Saturday.
It’s been an incredible ride for the Nice youth product, for whom great things were expected as a youngster but who never really developed as was hoped. Modeste had the pace and awareness, and intermittently showed his potential for Bordeaux.
However, until recently, he was perhaps most noted in the top leagues for his ill-fated spell at Blackburn Rovers, when he arrived as a potential saviour but failed to get on the scoresheet as the Lancashire club were relegated, never to return.
A good season of reputation rehabilitation at Bastia subsequently suggested that maybe Modeste just didn’t have the quality for a higher level, but he has thrived in Germany. He was more than useful for Hoffenheim but has gone to a different level at the Rhein-Energie Stadion.
There’s still the nagging feeling that Modeste is a good player enjoying a purple patch, but it’s hard to argue with 42 Bundesliga goals for Cologne in less than two seasons. It has not escaped wider notice either, with Tianjin Quanjian making successive efforts to sign him for a fee of up to €50 million, which were firmly rejected by sporting director Jorg Schmadtke, as per L’Equipe (in French). Schmadtke reportedly personally called the Chinese Super League club’s coach Fabio Cannavaro to get them to desist.
Modeste seems happy where he is, and why wouldn’t he be? He is in the form of his life and finally his pace, strength and finishing have all come together in a triumvirate of confidence. Still, with his 29th birthday approaching, his unwillingness to push for a potential Chinese bounty shows just how good he feels in northern Germany.
All three of these under-the-radar stars, then, are united by their determination, single-mindedness and sheer love for what they do. Each of them is a refreshing blast of fresh air from a seemingly bygone era, and their successes deserve to be celebrated.