Mauro Icardi, Gonzalo Higuain, Lionel Messi, or maybe Sergio Agüero? Despite their name recognition and illustrious starts to the season, all of that quartet are looking up at Nantes’ Emiliano Sala in the current table of Argentine scorers in Europe’s top five leagues. After a brace against hapless Guingamp yesterday, the lanky striker has netted six times in the last three matches, bringing his season tally to ten. A recall to the national side may be a flight of fancy, but his performances are more than worthy of further recognition, especially after Nantes’ dour start to the season and subsequent dismissal of manager Miguel Cardoso.
Sala wasn’t initially in the Portuguese manager’s plans, and was nearly shipped to Galatasaray in the window’s waning day (a move that the player had reportedly been keen on), with Kalifa Coulibaly preferred in attack. Two goals from the bench in Nantes’ first three matches offered a solid rebuttal from a striker who had netted a dozen league goals (no mean feat under previous managers Claudio Ranieri and René Girard) in each of his previous campaigns, but surely felt marginalised by the arrival of Majeed Waris along with an attacking philosophy that implied a lone striker. Sala’s goals were not, however, enough to see Cardoso keep his job, as he was replaced last month by the veteran manager Vahid Halilhodzic.
Halilhodzic, of course, is nothing less than a cult figure at Nantes, having led the scoring charts in France twice for Les Canaris in the 1980s, netting a title for the Breton side in 1982-3 season. His managerial record has been a bit of a mixed bag, as an itinerant career has seen him qualify three different nations for the World Cup, and impress in France but also endure forgettable spells in charge of Trabzonspor and Rennes. His arrival at the Stade Beaujoire, however, has been an unqualified success, with Nantes, prosaic for so long under Girard, Ranieri and Michel Der Zakarian since last being promoted, finding a new lease on life in attack. Including a mid-week Coupe de La Ligue win over Montpellier, Nantes have scored fourteen goals in their last four matches, all of them wins and all featuring Sala on the scoresheet.
Halilhodzic’s attacking philosophy has certainly borne fruit for both the player and the club, but it’s not only on the pitch that the Bosnian feels things have changed. Even as the manager was both frugal in his praise of the Argentine post-match, he also hinted at more to come, perhaps even a tilt at his own goal record (29 in 1984-85), “He scores? So what, he’s paid to do that. The goalkeeper doesn’t score. When I arrived, the lad had a very low level of morale, but he went to work. He’s not the type of striker we often see today, playing with his back to goal, but he gives our attack a focal point.”
That focal point is something that Nantes haven’t truly had in a very long time; no leading man for Les Canaris has notched more than the dozen Sala netted last season since 1999-2000. Sala’s good form is certainly heartening, even as there was admittedly no small controversy over the awarding of his opener, a decidedly soft penalty, and Guingamp’s defending throughout the match was frankly abject. But make no mistake, Sala looks reinvigorated, surrounded by the creativity and pace of Anthony Limbombé and Gabriel Boschilia on the flanks. A figure of fun in some quarters for his lack of pace and ungainly style, Sala has continued to evolve his play, playing a slightly more withdrawn role to allow for the diagonal runs of his fellow attackers.
But his nature, however, at its essence, is still very much the archetypal powerful South American striker, blessed with physical gifts but perhaps not the most elegant or decisive. Sala had moved from his native country to France via Bordeaux’s Proyecto Crecer academy before failing to really impress at the Stade Chaban-Delmas. There had been flashes of goal-scoring prowess in a loan spell at Caen and another at second-division Niort, but Sala never really had a chance to take hold of the chances given him in the first team, and was moved to Nantes for less than a €1m in 2016.
Although his first season was far from a success in terms of his scoring numbers, he quickly endeared himself to Nantes’ fans with his hard-work and willingness to press from the front, even happy to play in a wide role or off another striker at times. Now, with a team based around his talent, and a manager willing to give his squad’s attacking talent greater responsibility, Sala could finally come good on the promise that he had shown upon his arrival. Now sitting behind only Kylian Mbappé in Ligue 1’s scoring charts, the sky very suddenly seems the limit for the unassuming attacker, a welcome outcome after surely being frustrated by his club’s previous negative tendencies.
1 | Although Thierry Henry’s Monaco tenure remains in its infancy, the scene in Monte Carlo is one of undeniable chaos. Injuries robbed Henry of five key starters for their eventual 1-0 loss at promoted Reims, but Henry questioned his players’ mental fortitude and desire, while claiming a lack of confidence meant his team “involuntarily refused to play” as he wanted and “didn’t know how to create” despite 72% possession and playing for 20 minutes with a man up as Reims sat deep. Meanwhile, Henry’s use of immobile centre back Kamil Glik on the right of a three man defence only served to expose that flank, a weakness that led to Mathieu Cafaro’s winner. The 2017 champions are now 14 games without a win, 19th in the Ligue 1 table and 4 points adrift from safety – a “very disturbing” situation said Radamel Falcao afterwards.
2 | St Étienne’s enthralling 4-3 win over Angers equalled not simply the game of the weekend, but of the season so far. Despite losing talisman striker Karl Toko Ekambi to Villarreal, 17 league goals last term, Angers’ coach Stéphane Moulin has again managed to squeeze the best from a limited team who impressed in taking the lead twice before being overhauled. Mathieu Debuchy, whose header made it 2-1, and Rémy Cabella whose cross forced a Vincent Manceau own goal and set up substitute Romain Hamouma’s late winner, were pivotal for Les Verts who remain in contention for their first top-tier European cup berth since 1981.
3 | Despite some eye-catching results including draws with St Étienne, Monaco and Bordeaux, promoted Nîmes had not won since mid-August, but Saturday’s 4-0 triumph at Dijon emphatically ended that unwanted run. With Dijon suffering through their own disastrous form, taking just two points from nine games, the meeting between two of the league’s more attacking outfits represented the problematic nature of maintaining a more expansive outlook in the otherwise physical and street-wise Ligue 1. Considering their successfully free-wheeling campaign last term, a refusal to change his philosophy and the team dropping to 17th, Dijon coach Olivier Dall’Oglio is now under severe pressure.
Results: PSG 2-1 Lille, Montpellier 3-0 Marseille, Lyon 1-1 Bordeaux, St Étienne 4-3 Angers, Strasbourg 1-1 Toulouse, Reims 1-0 Monaco, Nice 1-0 Amiens, Nantes 5-0 Guingamp, Caen 1-2 Rennes, Dijon 0-4 Nîmes.