If there’s anything that Newcastle United’s successful poaching of France’s Ligue 1 – or Swansea’s unbelievable deal for Michu – has taught fans of the Premier League, it’s that top-quality talent can be found abroad at very affordable prices – as long as you know where to look for it. With many countries in Europe suffering from the economic crisis, more and more clubs find themselves in the situation of needing to sell in order to survive. Furthermore, when even the worst EPL sides receive more in TV revenue money than top sides in ‘lesser’ European leagues, the gulf is only going to increase.
While newspaper headlines concentrate on the big names (‘Falcao to Chelsea’, ‘Jovetić to Arsenal’ ) a savvier manager – with a much smaller budget – would do well to look just across the channel at our French and Belgian neighbours. And what do teams looking to survive in the EPL find invaluable? A goal-scoring striker. We’re sure Villa fans would agree with this, in light of Christian Benteke’s superb debut season in Birmingham. So it’s for this reason that we’ve compiled a list of the 6 strikers we think could be really exciting additions to the Premier League. They may not have the same star-appeal as a Falcao or a Jovetić but, more importantly, they also don’t have the same mega price tag.
Name: Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang
D.O.B: 18/06/89 (23 years old)
P.O.B: Laval, France (Represents Gabon at International level)
Club: AS Saint-Étienne (France)
Estimated Value: £10-15m
Now we’ll start with the most expensive striker on our list. Aubameyang has been in glittering form this season and, quite rightly, has attracted interest from some of Europe’s bigger clubs. According to reports, AS Roma are big fans, while Inter are rumoured to have made a €15m bid. We’ve no idea how much truth is in those reports but the fact of the matter is, such has been his form over the recent season, a move to a club such as Inter is a distinct possibility. That’s not to say that his near future couldn’t be in England though; with 19 goals in 31 appearances, as well as 9 assists, Aubameyang would be an attractive target for the likes of Arsenal and Tottenham.
Aubameyang’s goals have propelled L’ASSE into 4th spot, only 2 points behind 3rd place Lyon and 4 behind Marseille, who sit in 2nd. While PSG seem to have sown up the title, a late push by Saint-Étienne towards the number two spot is definitely achievable – even more so when you consider that the club has games against both Lyon (away) and Marseille (home) still to come, and are unbeaten in the league in 2013.
What does Aubameyang offer we hear you ask? Well, besides his obvious pace and agility he is deceptively skillful. Capable of both power and beautiful finesse when shooting he really is a danger when attacking an opponent’s penalty area. He can play as part of a front two, or as a winger in a front three, cutting inside onto his favoured right foot. Aubameyang is also a leader. When he opted to represent Gabon, his father’s homeland, instead of France or Italy (Aubameyang grew up in Italy alongside his 2 brothers, Catilina and Willy – also both footballers – because their father works for AC Milan as a scout) he became the national team’s new talisman.
Nowhere was this more evident than at the subsequent African Cup of Nations tournament held in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea. Gabon stormed to the top of a group containing continental heavyweights Tunisia and Morocco, as well as Niger, by winning all their games, with Aubameyang netting in all 3 matches. There were times when it seemed as if he were physically dragging the team through to the next round, acutely aware of just how much it meant to the home crowd. It wasn’t to end in happiness, however. In the quarter-finals Gabon faced Mali and, after the scores remained 1-1 after 120 minutes, the game went to penalties. Both teams scored their first 3 penalties before Aubameyang stepped up. With the weight of a nation’s expectations on his shoulders the footballing gods, in all their wisdom, decided that Pierre-Emerick should be the player to miss. His reaction was telling too. In tears, being consoled by his teammates, it was clear just how much this meant to him. There is no doubt, though, that Aubameyang has come back stronger from that experience. At 23 years of age he is still young enough to improve, but old enough to learn from his mistakes. He may not end up joining a Premier League club this summer but there’s no denying that Aubameyang is currently one of Europe’s hottest properties.
Name: Cédric Bakambu
D.O.B: 11/04/91 (22 years old)
P.O.B: Vitry-sur-Seine, France
Club: FC Sochaux-Montbéliard (France)
Estimated Value: £3-6m
Cédric Bakambu may not have the goalscoring statistics to rival Aubameyang but, with his club perched precariously in 18th position, every goal he scores is a vital step towards keeping Sochaux in Ligue 1. 8 goals might not seem overly impressive, yet it is an improvement on the 3 he scored last year and shows his development as a player. Still only 22, he’s not yet in his prime and has plenty of time to develop. It’s not the amount of goals that have impressed us with Bakambu, however, but the teams against which he’s scored them. With his club facing the prospect of relegation, Bakambu has netted important strikes in wins over Marseille (3-1), PSG (3-2) and Lyon (2-1), while he also got his name on the score sheet in last week’s 2-2 draw with Bordeaux.
Bakambu’s main weapon is his speed. An exceptional burst of pace, coupled with a good first touch, is utilised well when hanging off the last defender. His understanding with strike partner Giovanni Sio has led to some impressive performances in recent weeks and other Ligue 1 sides will surely be looking to snap him up should Sochaux go down. Capped for France at Under 18, 19 and 20 level, Bakambu’s progress has been steady and he’s clearly improving every season.
Name: Imoh Ezekiel
D.O.B: 24/10/93 (19 years old)
P.O.B: Lagos, Nigeria
Club: Standard Liège (Belgium)
Estimated Value: £4-8m
Imoh Ezekiel isn’t a name that fans outside of Belgium are likely to be familiar with; when he signed for Standard 9 months ago from 36 Lion in his native Nigeria we’re sure that many fans inside of Belgium had no idea who he was. The fact that he forced his way into the starting line-up, becoming a pivotal member of the team, is testament to his own determination and ability. Signed initially on loan, Ezekiel did enough in 7 matches to warrant a full contract, and he has repaid Standard quicker than anyone could have hoped. 14 goals in 20 games in his debut season is an eye-catching statistic. He’s also netted once in 4 games in the end of season playoffs. His performances have led Standard to renew his contract until 2017, and another season in Belgium would surely do him no harm. The future, though, looks to be bigger and better for Imoh Ezekiel.
It’s looking like a theme to our reports now, but Ezekiel’s pace is the first thing any viewer will notice when watching him play. He’s by far the fastest of the 6 strikers in this list. Yet he isn’t just a one trick pony. The owner of a sure right foot, his reaction speed also plays a big part in his success; able to pounce on an opportunity quicker than defenders, both outside and inside the penalty box. For someone not huge in stature he is also gifted in the air. Assistant coach at Standard Liège, Jean-François de Sart, cites Ezekiel as “an example for everyone”. Recently called up to the Nigeria Under-20 squad, it shouldn’t be too long before he’s wearing the green and white of the Super Eagles. If the level of ambition shown in his short career at Standard so far is anything to go by, he won’t be hanging around in Belgium for too much longer either.
Name: Michy Batshuayi
D.O.B: 2/10/93 (19 years old)
P.O.B: Brussels (debatable), Belgium (Other Nationalities: DR Congo)
Club: Standard Liège (Belgium)
Estimated Value: £3-7m
The next striker on our list is Ezekiel’s partner at Standard Liège, and another 19 year old: Michy Batshuayi. The success of their partnership is probably down to their differing abilities on a football field. Batshuayi is no slouch, but he doesn’t possess the fierce acceleration of Ezekiel. On the other hand, Michy’s best tools are his power, strength and skill. Tall and built, Batshuayi is a handful for defenders, and it doesn’t help them that he seems just as comfortable with his weaker left foot as he does with his right. He only has 9 goals to his name in the league this term, but after netting 6 times in his debut season last year, Standard will be happy with the development of their young striker. He’s represented Belgium Under-21s five times where, while he admitted to not knowing who many of the other players were, he still managed to net 3 times.
After his impressive performances last season it was rumoured that both Chelsea and Barcelona were keen on him. We would say that he’s not ready for that level just yet – he is still relatively raw – but the potential is definitely there to be a top class striker. De Sart refers to him as “one of the most gifted attackers of his generation” and, as with Ezekiel, Standard have renewed his contract until 2017 to try to ward off any potential suitors.
Name: Mbaye Leye
D.O.B: 1/12/82 (30 years old)
P.O.B: Birkelane, Senegal
Club: Zulte Waregem (Belgium)
Estimated Value: £2-4m
At 30 years of age, Mbaye Leye is far and away the oldest striker on our list, but this journeyman forward has something the others don’t: bags of experience. After a few years in France, Leye made the move to Belgium, where he has spent the majority of his career. He was impressive in his first spell at Zulte Waregem, scoring 25 goals in 47 games. There was talk of him moving to Portsmouth after the two clubs formed a partnership, but this never materialised so Leye tried to move up the Belgian footballing ladder. Spells at K.A.A Gent (11 goals in 46 games) and Standard Liège (7 in 35), while not terrible, didn’t live up to his earlier years.
A return to Zulte in the January 2012 transfer window was just what the striker needed to invigorate himself again. During the regular season Leye contributed 9 goals in 24 appearances, and a 17 match unbeaten run between October and March saw Zulte finish in 2nd place. It is in the end of season playoffs, however, where he’s really turned it on: 6 goals in 5 games, including one of the best hat-tricks you’re likely to see, have propelled Zulte Waregem to the top of the table – ahead of usual suspects Anderlecht, Standard, Genk and Club Brugge. At the moment, this sees them qualifying directly for the Champions League group stage, something even the best betting expert would not have predicted at the start of the season. Zulte, with a team of youngsters and players other teams didn’t want, are on the verge of something special – and Mbaye Leye is leading from the front.
Name: Carlos Bacca
D.O.B: 8/09/86 (26 years old)
P.O.B: Barranquilla, Colombia
Club: Club Brugge (Belgium)
Estimated Value: £5-10m
For out-and-out goalscorers, we think we’ve saved the best until last. Carlos Bacca is a natural-born predator. 22 goals in 23 regular season games, plus 1 in 5 in the playoffs, in his first season in Belgian football represents an unbelievable return for the measly €2.5m that Club Brugge spent bringing the Colombian over from Atlético Junior. 50 goals in 97 appearances for that club, alongside 38 goals in 75 matches on various loan spells at Barranquilla and Minervén, were enough proof that he would deliver the goods – and deliver he has.
Pace, precision, finesse, aerial ability: Bacca has it all in his repertoire. He seems to ghost around the last man. A superb sense of positioning means that he often goes unnoticed until it’s too late and the through ball has already been played. He’s comfortable finishing with both feet and doesn’t shy away from shooting long distance either; once the goal is within his sights he turns on tunnel-vision mode, and only has one objective in mind.
It’s hard to see Bacca remaining at Club Brugge past this summer, his form is just simply too good. The price he leaves for will be at last double what the Belgians paid for his services, if not more.