Gunslingers braced for final push

It is no easy task to stay at the top of the European scoring chart season after season. Just ask Uruguayan duo Diego Forlan and Luis Suarez. The Atletico Madrid man was the leading marksman on the continent in 2008/09 with 32 goals, while his international strike partner followed suit the ensuing campaign by netting 35 times for Ajax. This time around, however, with just a few weeks remaining in Europe’s championship races, the Celeste twosome are not even in the top ten.

Taking into account league goals exclusively, the only player to figure in the top three in the last two seasons is Barcelona’s Lionel Messi, who pocketed the European Golden Shoe last year after scoring 34 goals. Though one less than Suarez managed, the Argentinian won the coveted accolade by virtue of the fact that goals scored in Europe’s five highest-ranked leagues count for more than those scored in the continent’s other championships. The winner of the FIFA Ballon d'Or 2010 is in pole position to collect the trophy again, though Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo is pushing him all the way, with the two La Liga entertainers currently lying five and three goals clear of the rest of the field respectively.

Though Messi and Ronaldo appear to be in a league of their own, there are several other goal-getters across the continent who have been enjoying profitable domestic seasons, as points out.

Lethal in La Liga
Aside from their exploits in the UEFA Champions League, Messi and Ronaldo have been in unstoppable form on the domestic front. El Pulga has racked up 31 goals - including four penalties - in only 30 matches, a remarkable average of 1.03 goals per game. In scoring against Osasuna at the weekend, Messi also reached the 50-goal mark in all competitions this season, beating the record set by the great Hungarian Ferenc Puskas back in 1959/60.

Making light of the occasional absence through injury, Cristiano Ronaldo has been only marginally less prolific, finding the back of the net 29 times - including seven spot-kicks - in 30 games for an average of 0.97 goals per match. Lying some way back in third place in the Spanish standings is Messi’s Barcelona team-mate David Villa, one of four joint-top scorers at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™. Nevertheless, El Guaje has managed a still respectable 18 goals in 32 outings, equating to a healthy average of 0.56.

Messi and Ronaldo are being chased in the overall standings by two Serie A sharpshooters in exceptional form. The 33-year-old Antonio di Natale has a proven track record in the Italian top flight, having now averaged over 20 goals a season in his last four campaigns with Udinese. He has lost none of his touch this term, having hit 26 goals in 32 games for I Bianconeri, just three short of his tally last season.

Nine years his junior, Napoli’s Uruguayan target man Edinson Cavani has hit the same number of goals as Di Natale in one game more, putting more established stars such as Inter Milan's Samuel Eto’o and AC Milan's Zlatan Ibrahimovic in the shade. The Cameroonian has amassed 20 goals and the Swede 14, two more than 34-year-old Roma idol Francesco Totti.

Currently lying fifth in the race for the Golden Shoe is Bayern Munich centre-forward Mario Gomez, who has made light of his side’s poor season to notch 23 goals, overshadowing team-mates Thomas Muller and Arjen Robben, who have ten and nine apiece respectively. In compiling his total, Gomez has become only the third player to score four hat-tricks in a Bundesliga season. Bayern old boy Lukas Podolski will be disappointed with his return of 12 goals for Cologne, while Spanish veteran Raul can feel a good deal more pleased with the round dozen he has scored for Schalke.

Portugal, England and further afield
Porto's Hulk is the leading marksman in Portugal, which has no fewer than three representatives in the semi-finals of this year’s UEFA Europa League. The powerful Brazilian has collected 22 goals in 25 league appearances and has also served up 13 assists, stats that will only increase the interest already being shown in him by several other major European clubs.

The English Premier League’s leading two goalscorers can both be found in Manchester. While Didier Drogba, Chelsea team-mate Fernando Torres and Wayne Rooney can muster just 31 goals between the three of them, United’s Bulgarian forward Dimitar Berbatov has outdone them all with 21 alone, two more than City’s Argentinian ace Carlos Tevez. The most prolific Englishman is Darren Bent of Aston Villa, who is the league’s joint third-highest scorer on 15 goals.

Top dog in Ligue 1 is Senegalese sharpshooter Moussa Sow, whose 21 goals, none of them penalties, have helped fire Lille to the top of the table. Scotland striker Kenny Miller has also been in fine form, having struck 12 times for Rangers before the January transfer window and nine since for his new Turkish employers Bursaspor.

Elsewhere, Peter Thompson of Northern Ireland’s Linfield has elbowed his way into the top ten with 20 goals, with not a penalty among them, the same as Basle’s Alexander Frei, one of the continent’s more seasoned finishers.  

With just a few weeks of the season remaining, though, the Golden Shoe looks bound for Spain once more.