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World Cup 2018: Predicting the Golden Boot winner

 • by Mark Thompson
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Guessing who is going to win the World Cup is difficult. With so many teams in the mix and everyone just a bad game away from elimination, there’s a lot that can’t be predicted.

Guessing who will be top-scorer is possibly even harder. The pool of possible players opens up dramatically, but can we whittle this down to find the Chosen One?

You might think that to win the Golden Boot you’d need to take advantage of the minnows at the group stage. Rack up the goals against them and you’re sure of getting it, right?

Well, that’s not been the case in recent World Cup history.

No Golden Boot winner in the past five tournaments has done so helped by scoring a hat-trick, although there haven’t been many of them anyway. There have only been six hat-tricks since 1998 compared to 14 in the five World Cups before that.

Oleg Salenko’s performance in 1994 seems to be the cut-off point for the ‘smash the minnows’ approach, finishing as joint-top scorer in the USA with Hristo Stoichkov after putting five past Cameroon in the group stage.

But in more recent memory, the main thing is to be consistent.

Consistency is key

Only Miroslav Klose in 2006 scored in fewer than four games on his way to the Golden Boot, scoring braces against Costa Rica and Ecuador in the group stage.

So, if you’re looking for the man who’ll come away with the prize in Russia, you’re looking for someone who can be counted on to score in four or five different games.

Unfortunately, if you were wanting to back a dark horse, this means someone on a team who’ll make it late into the competition. James Rodríguez was something of an exception in Brazil, although he epitomised regularity, scoring at least a goal in every match.

Apart from him, the seven Golden Boot winners from 1998 to 2010 (four different players shared it in South Africa) made it to the semi-finals. In fact, four of them scored in either the final or the third/fourth play-off game.

Brazil, France, Spain, Germany, and Argentina seem to be the main favourites to make it that far. Thomas Müller scored five in 2014 and 2010, when he joint-top scored, while Lionel Messi and Neymar both scored four in Brazil. Are they the main three contenders this time around?

Only one winner’s step on the podium

While putting minnows through the ringer doesn’t seem to be a route to the Golden Boot any longer, it surely can’t hurt their chances.

Looking at qualifying, Poland, Peru, and Sweden were all sides that conceded a fair number of shots, goals, and big chances. That means Müller could be in luck, in Group F with Sweden, or one of France’s forwards could come into their own in Group C with Peru.

That group also comes with Australia and Denmark, hardly sides in the very upper tiers of the world’s elite, although France’s wealth of goal-scoring options might dilute any of their chances of top-scoring. Müller might be hindered by playing second fiddle to a main striker too (although this didn’t do him too much harm in 2010).

Let’s look at the world’s Big Three strikers then, Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar. Which of them is the most consistent scorer?

Messi scored in 21 of his 36 league appearances last season (or 58 per cent), Ronaldo netted in 15 of 27 (56 per cent), and Neymar in 12 of his 20 (60 per cent). Not a lot between each of them.

Ronaldo, with a harder group and weaker team, can be taken out. It’s between Messi and Neymar. Argentina’s Group D opponents put together conceded 1.77 goals per game in qualifying, while Brazil’s Group E opponents conceded 2.29.

Neymar it is then. No pressure.

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