This season, various strikers are performing above expectations for small clubs, as Michael Cox notes...
As inequality within Europe’s top leagues has grown, it has become increasingly difficult for players from bottom-half clubs to claim the prestigious top goalscorer awards.
But this campaign, there's a handful of little guys rivalling more established players in the net-busting charts. Here’s a look at the top marksman for each bottom-half club in Europe’s major five leagues...
Luca Toni (18 goals, Verona)
The gentler pace of Serie A means attackers can perform perfectly well into their thirties – and nine years after winning the European Golden Boot, Luca Toni is still banging in the goals at Stadio Marcantonio Bentegodi.
In truth, Toni’s story is different to that of Francesco Totti, Alessandro Del Piero or Antonio Di Natale. While that trio remained in Italy and scored relentlessly for the same team every season, Toni’s journey has been more eventful. Verona are his 16th club, and he’s enjoyed two very different experiences outside Italy, with a spell at Bayern Munich and then a brief stint with Al-Nasr in the UAE.
Moving to the Middle East generally means a player has effectively retired, but Toni’s hunger to return to his homeland is admirable. In 2012 he rejoined Fiorentina, a sensible move considering his previous success in Florence – the fans were delighted that he returned, and he was happy to be Plan B at a club he loved.
But Toni was so effective as a Plan B, scoring eight goals, that he wanted more. He moved to Verona the next summer and has been in sensational form ever since, hitting 37 Serie A goals in two seasons.
Toni now lacks mobility and sometimes appears somewhat clumsy in front of goal. Yet he positions himself brilliantly, remains masterful in the air and still celebrates every goal like it’s his first. Despite turning 38 next month, there’s no reason the Italian won’t be around next season too.
Linked with: A surprise move to Brazil. But perhaps not so surprising considering his lengthy list of clubs.
Alberto Bueno (16 goals, Rayo Vallecano)
A product of the Real Madrid youth system, Bueno had a fine footballing education – and while he wasn’t handed many opportunities for Real’s full side, he once played up front alongside Javier Saviola and Raul.
It all went quiet for Bueno after that, however. He bounced between the top two divisions with Real Valladolid and had an unmemorable loan spell with Derby County in the Championship, but he's really found his feet since returning to Madrid with perennial plucky overachievers Rayo Vallecano.
Whereas others on this list are old-fashioned battering rams, Bueno is more stereotypically Spanish, a lightweight, neat and tidy footballer capable of playing either on the wing or as a second striker.
It’s in the latter position where he’s thrived this season, and is La Liga’s top goalscorer if you discount the top five sides – Barcelona, Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid, Valencia and Sevilla – in the division.
There’s no doubt about Bueno’s standout display of the season. On the final day in February, he hit all four goals in the 4-2 thrashing of Levante in the space of 16 minutes, the second-fastest four-goal haul in La Liga history after Brazilian World Cup winner Bebeto’s strikes for Deportivo against Albacete in 1995.
That might be the highlight of Bueno’s career. A likeable but limited footballer, the ex-Ram's hot streak is probably a one-off – he might want to save the clippings of that Levante game to show his grandkids.
Linked with: Southampton, Porto.
Alexander Meier (19 goals, Eintracht Frankfurt)
Alexander Meier is a curious case. Now into his 11th season with Eintracht Frankfurt, including one in the second division, he’s in the form of his life. Never capped by Germany, never chased by any of the Bundesliga’s big clubs, he’s ahead of Arjen Robben and Robert Lewandowski in the scoring charts.
Traditionally a player who thrived in a deeper role despite his imposing 6ft 5in frame, Meier has been pushed higher up the pitch this season and produced astonishing goalscoring form.
It’s particularly impressive considering he started the season on the bench, with new coach Thomas Schaaf favouring Haris Seferovic up front in a 4-2-3-1 system. Meier scored after 15 minutes of his first start and never looked backed. Schaaf switched to more of a 4-4-2 to accommodate both strikers, with Seferovic providing the running and Meier the physique and finishing. His 19 goals came in just 24 starts.
A knee injury earlier this month brought a premature end to Meier’s best-ever campaign. He seemed set to lose his top goalscorer title to Robben or Lewandowski – two and three goals behind – but with both out injured too, the veteran could hang on for the final four games of the season and add the Bundesliga’s Torjägerkanone ('top scorer cannon') to his equivalent award for the second division in 2011/12.
Linked with: Out for four months. Unlikely to leave behind the fans who call him 'Fußball Got' anyway.
Claudio Beauvue (14 goals, Guingamp)
It’s impossible to think of a Guingamp striker banging in the goals without remembering Didier Drogba’s successful period at the club. Indeed, Beauvue has done a Drogba in the sense that he’s spent much of his early career in the second tier of French football, but he’s a very different type of forward.
Beauvue is just 5ft 8in and was previously considered a tricky attacking midfielder rather than a striker. Indeed, he played the opening three months of the campaign on the flank, yet his first three goals of the season were all headers. Therefore, coach Jocelyn Gourvennec decided to try Beauvue up front as a pure striker, and after collecting just 12 points from their first 15 games, they took 13 from their next five.
Fourteen goals is a slightly flattering return for Beauvue, in truth, considering four of them have come from the penalty spot. But his reputation is growing, and while his end product is often frustrating, he’s eternally dangerous – quick, versatile, good at running the channels and lethal in the air.
He’s been linked with a move to Everton this season, and would be a good option from the substitutes' bench for a club of that calibre. It would be a shame for Guingamp to lose their star man, but considering they signed him for just £220,000 two summers ago, they’ll make a good profit.
Linked with: Everton, West Ham.
Charlie Austin (17 goals, QPR)
If it wasn’t for Tottenham Hotspur goal-machine Harry Kane, Austin would be the revelation of the Premier League season – and might even have an England cap or two to his name.
At the start of the season, it appeared Queens Park Rangers had a decent squad ready for the Premier League, but lacked an experienced striker capable of scoring regularly at the top level. Instead, it’s been the complete opposite – Austin is the only reason QPR still have a chance of survival.
A traditional No.9 who leads the line well, Austin isn’t just a penalty box poacher. He’s also capable of shooting from range, and his willingness to pull the trigger regularly means he’s in the top five most prolific shooters in Europe this season, alongside Cristiano Ronaldo, Leo Messi, Sergio Aguero and Arjen Robben.
His best performance of the season came in a 3-2 victory over West Brom, when he hit a hat-trick from 10 attempts at goal, also winning all three aerial battles. His experience in the lower leagues remains obvious in his playing style – he likes the hustle and bustle of physical matches – and while it’s difficult to imagine a truly big club coming in for him in the summer, he’ll surely remain in the Premier League, even if QPR don’t.
Linked with: Liverpool, Newcastle, Chelsea, Everton.