The 2018/19 soccer season in Europe has been a triumphant one for African stars with the likes of Mane, Salah and Aubameyang. Michael Renouf looks back on a glorious season for African players in Europe and picks his players to watch in the coming season.
The 2018/19 English Premier League season gave us a couple of firsts: Riyad Mahrez’s Manchester City becoming the first team to win the domestic treble of League title, FA Cup and League Cup; but their talismanic Argentinian striker, Seguro Agüero could only finish fourth in the race for the Golden Boot with 21 goals – ahead of him was a tie for the top goal scorer trophy with three of his rivals notching 22 strikes apiece.
A tie for the award for the player or players that score the most goals in the Premier League in a season in itself is not that unusual, in fact it has happened on three previous occasions: 1997/98 (Chris Sutton, Dion Dublin and Michael Owen); the following season (Dwight Yorke, Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink and Michael Owen again) and in 2010/11 (Carlos Tevez and Dimitar Berbatov).
Last season was the 27th of the Premier League era and over the years, the nationality of the winner of the Golden Boot has shifted away from being dominated by English players in the early years to combatants from countries as diverse as Trinidad and Tobago, Uruguay and Cote D’Ivoire.
In fact, such is the decline in English players leading the goalscoring charts, only World Cup Golden Boot winner Harry Kane (2015/16 and 2016/17) has topped this particular chart since Kevin Philips of Sunderland back in 1999-2000, whilst being in possession of a British passport.
What was unique about the 2018/19 race was that all three winners are from Africa. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang of Arsenal and Gabon and the Liverpool pair of Sadio Mane (Senegal) and Mo Salah of Egypt.
Salah of course picking up his second consecutive award as he was last season’s winner with a mind boggling 32 goals. This is the first time ever that club mates have shared the award – a feat I don’t see being repeated very often.
In his first two seasons with Liverpool, Salah has scored an impressive 54 goals in 74 league appearances and he is already tied as the African player that has captured this honour on the most occasions along with the only player from the continent to win the award before last season – Didier Drogba (2006/7 and 2009/10) – with two titles apiece. However, the Chelsea hitman did have nine seasons at the London club to achieve this. Coincidentally this was the club where Jose Mourinho failed to get a tune out of Egypt’s star man.
If he stays in England, how long will it be before Salah picks up his third award which would bring him level with the only two men to have accomplished that feat, the goal scoring legends, Alan Shearer and Thierry Henry. Also, if he tops the scoring charts next season, he will be only the second player to do this three seasons in a row, the other being the aforementioned former Blackburn and Newcastle hitman, Shearer.
For all his greatness the Liverpool number 11 was statistically the weakest of the three winners playing 38 games opposed to the 36 of the other two recipients, with Aubameyang achieving it with the least shots (72) and also having the best goals per minute ratio by nestling the ball in the back of the opponents net once every 124 minutes.
In fact if you take all the goals scored by these three, over all the games they played in all competitions last season, it is the Arsenal man in his first full season in England who comes out on top with 31 goals in 51 games, a few of which he started on the substitutes bench.
Africans in European soccer
Africa was well represented in the two European finals, which in another first, were contested by four teams from the same country, Chelsea and Arsenal in the Europa League and Tottenham and Liverpool in the Champions League Final.
In those two finals, there were plenty of participants from Africa, many of whom made significant contributions to the outcome of the games.
In Arsenal‘s 4-1 reverse to Chelsea, although Aubameyang had a poor game, his teammate Alex Iwobi (Nigeria) entered the fray as a 66th minute substitute and within minutes scored a stunning right foot shot from just outside the box to lay claim to the best goal of the game.
In the game for the ‘Cup with the big ears’, Liverpool lined up with three players from the world’s second largest continent, Salah, Mane and in defence Joel Matip of Cameroon and all of them would have a hand in the Scousers goals in their 2-0 victory.
Before the stragglers at the Wanda Metropolitano stadium in the Spanish capital of Madrid had taken their seats, Mane had earnt the most successful British team in European Cup/Champions League history, an extremely controversial penalty when his cross hit Moussa Sissoko’s hand and in the 2nd minute Salah slotted the subsequent spot kick past France’s World Cup winning goalkeeper Hugo Lloris to give last year’s beaten finalists the lead.
Then in the 87th, the Liverpool centre half played a simple ball to Divock Origi for the Belgian to put the game beyond doubt and secure the first trophy of Jurgen Klopp’s exciting reign in the North West of England.
The African players who play in the Premier League were not the only European based African players who tasted success in 2018-19.
Across the English Channel, the French game is dominated by PSG, but in an almighty shock they were beaten on penalties by Rennes after a draw in the final of Coupe de France. Rennes starting line-up was made up of five Frenchmen, one Czech and five Africans.
This included Edson Mexer of Mozambique who pulled the score back to 2-2 midway through the second half with a deft header after the Parisian giants had taken an early two goal lead. He was joined by Hamari Traore (Mali), Ramy Bensebaini (Algeria) and the Senegalese pair of M’Baye Niang and Ismaila Sarr – the latter scoring the decisive penalty in the shootout – in making up nearly 50% of the starting eleven of the team who play in red.
In Holland, Ajax secured the domestic double and were so close to making the Champion League Final, only being denied a place in the showpiece of European club football by Tottenham’s Lucas Moura’s goal in the 6th minute of injury time. Three African players were mainstays of the Amsterdam’s clubs season – the Moroccan pair of Hakim Ziyech and Noussair Mazraoui along with the Cameroonian stopper Andre Onana and a third Moroccan, Zakaria Labyad also contributed to the team’s success.
Five African players to watch in Europe next season excluding the current Golden Boot winners
Kalidou Koulibaly – Napoli and Senegal
Koulibaly is a physically imposing defender who at the time of writing is based in Italy but is rumoured to be on Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s Manchester United shopping list in an attempt to shore up The Red Devil’s extremely porous defence.
Standing at 6ft 5 inches (1.95m) he is predictably strong in the air and a goal threat, but he is also a quick and elegant player. He does, however, draw criticism for giving away too many fouls and picking up yellow cards far too often. Made the Confederation of African Football (CAF) team of 2018.
Thomas Partey – Atletico Madrid and Ghana
Partey has been one of Diego Simone’s main charges at Atletico Madrid for fou years now. The combative midfielder is the second player on this list to make the CAF team of 2018.
Although he only averages a goal around every dozen games for the Spanish capital’s second team, when he turns out for the Black Stars his goal to game ratio dramatically increases having notched seven goals before reaching his 20th cap. He could do with increasing his discipline as he often finds his name in the referee’s notebook come the end of the 90 minutes.
Naby Keïta – Liverpool and Guinea
Last season was Keïta’s first in England and although he had a decent start, one thing was missing from his game for most of the campaign – goals. While playing in Germany he scored 17 goals in 71 games for RB Leipzig and while the 24-year-old took nearly 30 games to register his first goal in the red shirt of Liverpool, once he did, they started to flow with three goals in his last six games. He missed out on the Champions League Final due to injury.
Hakim Ziyech – Ajax and Morocco
The attacking midfielder had an excellent season being one of two Africans to make the UEFA squad of the season (the other being Sadio Mane of Liverpool) scoring 21 goals across all competitions.
When the Moroccan scored to put Ajax 2-0 up in the second leg of their Champions League semi-final with Tottenham (3-0 on aggregate) it looked like he would be playing in the final in Madrid only to suffer last minute heartbreak in the second stunning comeback of the week in Europe’s premier club competition. Another player that will probably move in the summer transfer window.
Wilfred Zaha – Crystal Palace and Cote D’Ivoire
Wilfred Zaha is the answer to the trivia question – who was the legendary manager Alex Ferguson’s last signing at Old Trafford? The Cote D’Ivoire star did not settle at Manchester United but has thrived back at Crystal Palace. He played for England at youth level but changed his allegiance to Les Elephants when it came time to choose which nation to represent at senior level.