The French Connection: Emiliano Sala - The Argentine outscoring Lionel Messi

The Nantes striker is one of a host of foreign imports impressing in le Championnat - the League of Talents

When the season began, the last thing that Emiliano Sala would have been thinking of was comparisons with Barcelona star Lionel Messi.

Beyond being Argentine, footballers and forwards, there is little the pair appear to have in common. Whereas the five-time Ballon d’Or winner is known for his grace and technical ease, the 6 foot 2" Sala can look ungainly and was not even in the plans of previous boss Miguel Cardoso until he hit a golden seam of form.

It may not have been enough to save Cardoso from the sack barely two months after he took the job, but it has brought the 28-year-old firmly into the spotlight. 

Eight goals in the league this season mean that only Paris Saint-Germain’s Kylian Mbappe and Genoa’s Krzysztof Piatek have netted more regularly than him in Europe’s biggest five divisions, while of players who have scored at least five goals, he trails only Mbappe, Luka Jovic and Paco Alcacer in terms of minutes played per goal.

Even Messi has been left in his wake.

Emiliano Sala Nantes MHSC Couype de la Ligue 13122016

“That’s good,” he told L’Equipe, laughing. “It’s true that it’s something special for me. But what interests me is being able to progress.

“I had seen that Mbappe was scoring a goal every 55 minutes, but I hadn’t seen that I was in front of Messi. I’m going to have to really work now!”

Even when the team was struggling under Cardoso, Sala was scoring when given the chance and now, the change of coach, with Vahid Halilhodzic taking over early in October, has seen him thrive.

A hat-trick against Toulouse was the first of his professional career at the top level, while a goal against Amiens followed last weekend. And given just a few minutes at the end of Tuesday’s Coupe de la Ligue match against Montpellier, he netted again.

Spread over all competitions, he has nine goals in 11 appearances, with one arriving, on average, every 75 minutes.

“We speak the same language,” said the striker, who has spent the last eight years in France after arriving to play in Bordeaux’s youth teams. “He was a great attacker with impressive statistics, and he’s given me some pointers. 

“With him, we’re playing more direct, with a solid defensive block and high pressure to help us attack more quickly. It’s giving us more chances.”

Sometimes dismissed as a player uneasy on the eye, Sala, who has struck up a fine relationship with on-loan Monaco winger Gabriel Boschilia this term, is not flustered by such criticism.

“Frankly, I’m someone who’s really honest, and it doesn’t bother me at all,” he said.

“I’ve got my style, it’s my nature, I’m not going to change at 27 – I’m Argentine!

“Being on the field, giving everything for myself and maybe scoring a goal, and seeing a friend or a member of my family happy in the stands, that’s what makes me happy.”

Emiliano Sala Ligue 1 GFX

He is unwilling to target a particular number of goals this season, fearing that it might “limit” him, and he is not even concerned about changing the perception of himself from a physical warrior to a predatory scorer.

“I read a phrase a few days ago: ‘Men can lie, but numbers can’t,’” he said. “However football sees me, I’m just a guy who tries his hardest. 

“Some people have told me to hold back and economise my efforts, but I’m going to continue to make the same runs and try to be just as efficient. I don’t want to change.”

On course for the most prolific top-flight campaign of his life after scoring 12 league goals in each of the last two seasons, little wonder that the forward is happy with the way things are panning out in Nantes.

His medium-term target, however, is to play in Europe. Consequently, Nantes may need to enjoy him while they can, as their mid-table position will need dramatically improved to reach such heights this season, while Sala’s goal scoring exploits will not have gone unnoticed elsewhere. 

Perhaps even a certain compatriot at Camp Nou might have cast his eye upon Europe’s most prolific Argentine so far this season. 

Next article:
West Ham to host their first ever FIFA 19 event at the London Stadium
Next article:
Ozil snubbed 'crazy' £1m-a-week offer for Arsenal stay
Next article:
'I should've never announced my retirement!' - Van der Vaart in cheeky dig at Redknapp
Next article:
De Gea could leave Man Utd in search of Champions League glory, says former coach
Next article:
Higuain handed two-match ban for Juventus meltdown
Close