When expectation meets reality, there’s usually a massive disparity.
Few other arenas has quite the failure in meeting expectations – good or bad – than football.
Case and point is with players. Ahead of every league season, proclamations are made about certain individuals as to whether they’ll be a success or failure.
Some either struggle to meet standards, while others surpass them. With the domestic campaigns drawing to a close around Europe, we’re examining the player’s who under and over performed given their respective expectations heading into the 2018/19.
Today, we look at the five biggest over-performers from around Europe’s top-five leagues.
Duvan Zapata, Atalanta
Football enjoys fitting players within certain criteria and often physical attributes can disguise true vocations. Zapata is a salient case. Under the genius management of Gian Piero Gasperini, the Colombian has been reinvented, forging his very physical target-man qualities with that of a striker who likes to play off the shoulder. Indeed, Zapata has spearheaded an unexpected personal and club best season, plundering 22 Serie A goals as the league’s top scorers close in on a Champions League spot for the very first time. Compelling evidence of Zapata’s transformation from back-to-goal striker, to mobile target man, this season is exemplified by a quite glorious goal against Bologna in April.
Sadio Mane, Liverpool
Liverpool are now a side brimming with premier players in each position, as opposed to relying upon a Ballon d’Or worthy individual. Their success under Jurgen Klopp is through their collective effort, but out of that, individual class does emerge. Sadio Mane is a player who deserves to be singled out. While Mohamed Salah bares the weight of expectation as the face and focus of Liverpool’s attack, Mane has risen – particularly in 2019 – to take a significant load away from the Egyptian. Indeed, there’s been a different feel about Mane this season, one in which he has embraced more responsibility – he was deeply impressive when operating as a false nine – and thrived with the added stress. His best-ever Premier League return of 22 goals gave him a share of the Golden Boot and while Mane has always been very good, this season he joined an elite tier.
Karim Benzema, Real Madrid
There are precious little positives to glean from Real’s empty season. In truth, there might only be one; Benzema. It is difficult not to admire the Frenchman’s resolve because few players have been vilified by a fan base, which can be so toxic, quite like him. Benzema has been criminally underrated having sacrificed himself for Cristiano Ronaldo during the vast majority of his Los Blancos career. Without the Portuguese around, Benzema shown exactly why he should be considered one of the best No9s on the planet. He has only ever bettered this season’s 21-goal La Liga haul once during his decade stay at the club, achieved despite entering his 30s, and this arriving at a destabilised period for the club. His stock has never been higher, and few would have predicted that coming into this season.
Lucas Digne, Everton
A Barcelona talent drain filtered its way to Everton over the summer with Yerry Mina, Andre Gomes and Digne all moving to Merseyside. Digne was the only permanent acquisition, however, the £18 million fee has looked a bargain on the evidence of this season. The 25-year-old struggled to make an impact behind Jordi Alba at Barcelona, but consistency has bred quality. No defender created more chances in the Premier League this season (71) and if Everton had a genuine goalscoring No9 in their ranks, Digne would have far more than his four assists in 2018/19. The variety of his delivery has been a feature of Everton’s attack and defensively, he’s accrued the highest crosses blocked and second-highest interceptions plus tackles for his team. Suffice to say, Digne is right there with Andrew Robertson in claiming to be the league’s best left-back.
Krzysztof Piatek, Genoa and AC Milan
Ask the wider footballer community last summer for the lowdown on Krzysztof Piatek and a blank stare would have been received. Geona paid Polish outfit Cracovia €4 million for his services last summer and not much was thought of him. Fast forward to the present and the 23-year-old is now a Poland international drawing comparisons with Robert Lewandowski, plays his football for AC Milan and is widely considered to be one of the best young goalscorers in Europe. He’s a predatory striker, evidenced by the fact he’s accrued 21 goals in Serie A this term, but not provided one assist. But he is a well-rounded finisher, a scorer of differently styled goals. The fact Milan have even a sniff of securing a Champions League spot owes to Piatek’s success because before his arrival, they were toothless.
Liverpool midfielder Georginio Wijnaldum believes their “wonderful” season deserves to be rewarded with a trophy.
Having just missed out on a first title in 29 years after being edged out by Premier League defending champions Manchester City by one point, Jurgen Klopp’s side have a second chance at success in the Champions League final against Tottenham on June 1.
Wijnaldum, one of the club’s most consistent performers this season and the midfielder with the most appearances, thinks it would be shame not to end the campaign with some silverware.
“Overall, I think we had a good season and now is the challenge to finish with a title to make the season complete,” the two-goal hero against Barcelona in the Champions League semi-final told liverpoolfc.com.
“It would be really sad if we finish the season without a title, especially because I think we were quite consistent this season and we did so good. I think this season deserves one.
“The last couple of games were basically games where we could only win and look at what City were doing. They won also, so fair enough that they are champions.
“But now we have a game that we can control, so we have to bring that to a good end.
“It would be really special, especially because this season deserves an end like that.
“We’re going to do everything to bring it to that end, but it’s going to be tough.”
Another super-consistent performer for Liverpool this season has been defender Andy Robertson.
The Scotland international has featured in 47 of the club’s 52 matches and has provided 13 assists, establishing himself as the best left-back in the Premier League this season.
“I was happy with where I finished the season last year: I was getting better and better, so there was a wee bit more pressure on me this season,” said the 25-year-old.
“It was about me finding that level and showing I can be consistently good – and I think I’ve managed to do that.
“This season was big for me, I’ve managed to kick on and I’ve got a few years left in me, so hopefully I can take it into next season.
“Hopefully there’s one good performance left in me this season, then I’ll rest and then be fully concentrated on trying to put in the same performances next season and get the same kind of results.”
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The Brazilian playmaker has “suffered” while at Barcelona, according to Thompson, who believes Coutinho has been used in the wrong position at his new team but has the ability to return to being the impact player he was at Liverpool.
Barcelona made Coutinho a club-record signing last year, in a deal that could be worth up to £142million, but are now reportedly open to selling him. The Reds’ Premier League rivals Chelsea and Manchester United both having been linked with a move for a player who turns 27 this summer – and Thompson believes Liverpool should also be in the running.
“I would take him back in a heartbeat,” the ex-Reds defender told Sky Sports. “But it would have to be now. You don’t want to leave it another 12 months.
“I think he still has the ability,” Thompson added.
“He’s suffered at Barcelona. We’ve seen him playing out wide on the left, but he’s not Neymar. He likes to be in the middle where he can pull strings and is getting on the ball to hurt teams. He doesn’t do that and he’s not a left-winger and that’s where he’s playing at Barcelona.
“They don’t love him like Liverpool loved him.”
Coutinho left Liverpool having made just over 200 appearances over four-and-a-half seasons, scoring 54 goals and adding a further 45 assists, and Thompson cited the Brazilian’s performance during that spell as enough evidence that he could still make an impact if he returned.
“He was that little bit clever, that creativity behind those front three that you could go to in games where you knew you were going to have the majority of the possession,” said Thompson.
“He could open that door, he could score the goals that would get you the win.
“I would have him back, I don’t know about the football club, but he is the one with that ability.”
Thompson, who won seven league titles and three European Cups with Liverpool, captaining the side for four of those honours, hopes his former club included a buy-back clause when selling Coutinho last winter.
“Knowing our club, we’ve been very shrewd, maybe there’s a buy-back clause in there for maybe less than half what we sold him.”