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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 December 2018

Stars of Ronaldo's calibre struggle in Spain, but lesser-known players have stepped up

Likes of Zaza are scoring plenty of goals in Primera Liga even as likes of Real Madrid superstar are below par

Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo has struggled to score goals in the Primera Liga this season. Sergio Perez / Reuters
Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo has struggled to score goals in the Primera Liga this season. Sergio Perez / Reuters

The Primera Liga is working hard to promote itself globally in the face of competition from England’s Premier League. With offices from New York to Dubai, Lisbon to London, former league stars accentuate the positives of Spain’s top-flight.

There are many. Spanish clubs have been the pre-eminent force in European football, the clasico is the biggest and best game in world football and continues to deliver consistent excellence.

There are negatives, too.

Empty seats at stadium result in fines. They do not look good by comparison when almost every Premier League game is full, while average crowds at Espanyol or Celta Vigo are half their ground capacity. A fairer, more centralised television deal will help smaller Spanish clubs be more competitive, but the headlines are generated by the Primera Liga’s star names.

Most of the very best players in the world still play in Spain, which has more players in the Ballon d’Or list than any other country.

In 2013, Manchester United’s leading executive Ed Woodward spoke of his frustration that such lists were dominated by players from Barcelona and Real Madrid. He vowed to change it, but despite the Premier League’s financial hegemony, 11 players from Spain are in the 2017 list against seven from Premier League clubs, five from Italy, four from France, three from Germany.

It would have been more had Neymar stayed at Barcelona, where he would have been expected to be among the leading goalscorers along the usual suspects and fellow nominees Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema, Luis Suarez and Antoine Griezmann.

Not that anything has gone as expected with Primera Liga’s goalscorers this season.

Ronaldo has only one league goal to his name. Ditto Benzema. Griezmann has two, in a side that score few goals. Seven of Atletico’s 15 games so far have featured one or no goals. Suarez, who has a problem with his knee, has three.

Ronaldo in form while training

Messi? Let us not include him in this. He has 12 goals and is the clear favourite for another Pichichi.

Every goalscorer has lean spells, but it is unprecedented for so many – the world’s leading strikers who have played in European Cup finals and been in the Ballon d’Or list year after year – to stop scoring at the same time.

It cuts both ways as a look at the list of names in the top scorers’ chart shows.

Italian Simeone Zaza for a revitalised Valencia has nine. He scored six goals in the whole of last season, none of them at West Ham United, who he represented 11 times before moving to Valencia. West Ham were not sorry to see him go – and Zaza was not unhappy to leave his nightmare in London.

Zaza, 26, who was on loan from Juventus when he moved to West Ham, now has a prolific strike partner Rodrigo who has overcome his initial struggles and has seven league goals, two more than he scored all last season.

Rodrigo, a Brazilian whose family moved to Spain when he was 10 as his father opened a football school with Brazil international Mazinho, played at Celta Vigo, Benfica and Bolton Wanderers by the time he was 21.

His form at Benfica, where he appeared in consecutive Europa League finals, earned him a big money move to Valencia, but it didn't go to plan and he managed only two league goals in his first season at Mestalla.

Just up the eastern Mediterranean coast, Villarreal’s Cedric Bakambu has eight, while Real Betis’ Antonio Sanabria has seven.

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Messi and Ronaldo have been in the top three ever since the Portuguese joined Madrid from Manchester United in 2009. Messi should be there again and Ronaldo, the most highly motivated man in football, cannot be ruled out.

He missed the first five games of the league season to suspension, but one in the seven games since is not a statistic usually associated with the favourite for a second consecutive Ballon d’Or. It is also more surprising for he has not stopped scoring in the Uefa Champions League.

It has given others a chance to shine. And they have taken it, providing the Primera Liga with the opportunity chance to promote more of their lesser lights.