Quality players missing major international tournaments is, of course, nothing new. But at the Qatar World Cup, Europe’s most prolific goalscorer will be absent.
If Erling Haaland was heading to Qatar, he would surely be the favourite to win the Golden Boot, such is the Manchester City and 2022-23 Premier League top goalscorer’s remarkable form.
As it is, Norway failed to qualify, and Haaland will have to wait until at least 2026 to feature at his first World Cup.
Mohamed Salah is another big name missing, but there are still plenty of world-class finishers who will be looking to top the scoring charts.
THE LEADING CONTENDERS
Kylian Mbappe (France)
If the Lionel Messi-Cristiano Ronaldo era of dominance is coming to a close, then the Haaland-Mbappe era is surely just clicking into gear. Whereas Haaland will be watching from afar, Mbappe will be in the thick of the action for reigning world champions France.
Named the Best Young Player in Russia four years ago, Mbappe scored four goals, including one in the World Cup final as Didier Deschamps' team defeated Croatia 4-2.
Mbappe has since gone from strength to strength, no doubt fulfilling his potential to become one of the world’s best players. The Paris Saint-Germain forward, who turns 24 two days after the tournament concludes on 18 December, has scored an outstanding 169 club goals since the last World Cup – only Robert Lewandowski (211) boasts a better record across that time for clubs within the top five European leagues.
The striker is also the top-scoring player in all competitions within the top five European leagues across 2022 with 43 goals – five more than Robert Lewandowski. This season, he has found the net 19 times in 20 appearances for PSG, scoring every 88 minutes on average. The only player with more goals for a European club playing in the big five leagues is Haaland (23).
France endured a disappointing Euro 2020, with Mbappe failing to score and missing the crucial spot-kick that saw them crash out to Switzerland in the last 16. But Les Bleus must nevertheless be considered among the top dogs in Qatar, and Mbappe, who has 28 international goals to his name, is sure to be pivotal.
Karim Benzema (France)
If Mbappe does not do the damage for France, whose Group D opponents are Australia, Tunisia and Euro 2020 semi-finalists Denmark, then Deschamps has the luxury of putting the onus on Ballon d'Or winner Benzema to get the goals. Not a bad option to have, is it?
After a long absence from France's squad, Benzema returned for the delayed Euro 2020 tournament and – unlike Mbappe – had his shooting boots on, scoring four times, a tally bettered only by Patrik Schick and Ronaldo (both five). Since Ronaldo left Madrid in 2018, Benzema has stepped up to prove his worth as one of the world’s best strikers. Last season, he scored 44 goals in 46 games across all competitions, a mark only by Lewandowski surpassed. That was enough for Benzema to win his maiden Ballon d'Or in 2022.
Benzema averaged 0.95 goals per game, while also exceeding his expected goals (xG) value of 35 as he propelled Madrid to glory in Spain and Europe.
An injury has stunted his impact for Los Blancos this term, with the 34-year-old scoring six times in 12 appearances. He netted three times in five games at his only other World Cup appearance, back in 2014, and having missed out on the triumph in Russia, Benzema will surely be keen to make up for lost time and prove himself as the world's best player.
Lionel Messi (Argentina)
From one Ballon d'Or winner to a man that has claimed the award a record seven times, Messi cannot be discounted. The Argentina captain has already declared this tournament will be his final World Cup, and with his team more than capable of going all the way, you would not bet against the 35-year-old claiming the Golden Boot for the first time in his magnificent career.
With 12 goals in 19 games in all competitions this season, Messi has only been outscored by eight different players at clubs within the top five European leagues in 2022-23 and has already surpassed his goal total for PSG last term (11). That said, his shot-conversion rate of 15.4 per cent from 78 attempts is significantly lower than some of his Golden Boot rivals, such as Mbappe (23.5 per cent), Neymar (30.0 per cent) and Lewandowski (24.0 per cent). You would expect that will have to improve if Messi is to scoop the prize.
For his country, Messi has been supreme. He scored seven times in qualification for Argentina, joint-top for the team alongside Inter's Lautaro Martinez, while three friendly appearances in 2022 have proffered nine goals – Messi netting all five in a rout of Estonia in June.
He drove Argentina to Copa America glory in 2021 – his first international success – and was the tournament's joint-top scorer, alongside Colombia winger Luis Diaz, with four goals. Three of those came from outside the area, showing his finishing prowess from anywhere on the pitch, with his only goal from inside the area being a penalty in a 4-1 group stage defeat of Bolivia. With Saudi Arabia, who conceded seven goals in their three group games at Russia 2018, in Argentina's group, Messi should be relishing his chances.
Messi – who won the Golden Ball award for the best player at the 2014 World Cup – could even become the first player to do the Golden Boot/Golden Ball double since Salvatore Schillaci at Italia 90 (at a time when the Golden Boot was named the Golden Shoe). To do that, he'll need to end his own personal run of failing to score in a knockout stage game at the World Cup, having played 756 minutes and attempting 26 shots in the last 16 onwards in tournaments without a goal.
The third PSG player to make the top contenders, Neymar has made a flying start to the season and, possibly for the final time, will once again be the leading light for Brazil. Eight years ago, there was almost too much expectation on the then-22-year-old, whose injury in the quarter-final win over Colombia left a nation shattered. A 7-2 semi-final defeat to Germany followed, one of the most humiliating losses in Brazil’s history.
He only scored twice at the Russia World Cup as Brazil suffered a quarter-final exit, but Tite's team head to Qatar as the world's top-ranked side. If Neymar is to deliver, then the time is surely now.
After scoring just 13 times last season, and not netting at all in the Champions League, he has been superb this campaign. The 30-year-old has scored 15 times across all competitions in 2022-23 – two more than last season already. His tally is improved upon by only four players from teams within Europe's top five leagues, while he has converted 13 of the 23 big chances (defined by Opta as an opportunity from which a player would reasonably be expected to score) – a better rate than either Mbappe (9/22) or Lewandowski (10/22).
Of Neymar's goals, 12 have come from non-penalty situations, and he is far exceeding his non-penalty xG value of 9.0, showing the quality of his finishing. Only Haaland, of players in the big five leagues to have scored more than 12 times this season, boasts a better shot-conversion rate, too.
Like Messi, Neymar starred in qualifying, scoring once every 112 minutes, and Qatar could be his time. All of this is not to mention he needs just three more goals to become Brazil's record scorer, surpassing the great Pele.
Harry Kane (England)
Rounding out the leading names is 2018 Golden Boot winner Kane, who will be looking to go one step further with England after the Three Lions fell short of a first major triumph since 1966 at Euro 2020.
Tottenham star Kane, who is only three goals shy of overtaking Wayne Rooney as England's record goalscorer, scored six times as Gareth Southgate's team reached the semi-finals in Russia, though it must be noted three of these came in one game against Panama.
Indeed, he scored five times in England's opening two group games, and only once in the knockout stages – a penalty against Colombia in the last 16. Three of his goals came from the spot, though he did nevertheless outperform his non-penalty xG (1.5). All six of his shots on target went in.
England's poor Nations League campaign sees them head to Qatar on something of a sour note, but they have the talent to go deep into the competition and Kane has to be considered as a candidate to retain the award he won four years ago. His 12 goals in European qualifying was matched only by Memphis Depay, though Kane's conversion rate of 36.4 per cent showed how clinical he can be – Depay's, in contrast, was 20.7 per cent. England's captain scored his goals from just 33 shots, and he averaged one every 49 minutes.
Of course, the standard of opposition must be taken into account. England are unlikely to be beating any of their group-stage opponents (Iran, Wales and the United States) 10-0, as they did San Marino last year. Kane scored four in that match.
Though Haaland's rampaging of the Premier League has stolen the headlines, Kane has scored 12 times already in the competition and going back to last May, he's scored 17 goals in his last 20 league appearances for Spurs. At this stage last season in 15 Premier League appearances, Kane had scored just three goals from shots worth just 5.4 xG – in 2022-23, those numbers have increased to 12 goals from 9.4 xG. Not only is he finding himself in much better scoring positions, he's converting them at a rate higher than expected.
This bodes well for his quest for a back-to-back World Cup Golden Boot.
THE OTHER CONTENDERS
There are more than just five candidates for the Golden Boot, of course. Indeed, how could Lewandowski and Ronaldo – the highest goalscorer in international football's history – be left out?
Ronaldo, like Messi, is surely competing at his final World Cup. Despite his troubles at Manchester United, with the 37-year-old now claiming he feels "betrayed" by the club, he scored his 700th club goal in a win over Everton back in October – his only league strike of the season.
Lewandowski, on the other hand, has transitioned seamlessly from Bayern Munich to Barcelona, scoring 18 times in 19 appearances across all competitions, beating the opposition goalkeeper at an average of every 84 minutes. Impressively, none of those goals have come from the penalty spot.
The only factor holding Lewandowski back from making the top five is that Poland are likely to have to scrap hard to qualify from Group C, though if they are to progress then their striker is almost certain to have hit the goal trail from the off in their MD1 meeting with Mexico. Could he be Poland's second winner of the award, after Grzegorz Lato in 1974?
Bayern signed Sadio Mane to replace Lewandowski. He suffered a worrying injury last week, though has been named in Senegal's squad. If the former Liverpool star returns to fitness in time, then he could get plenty of goals in Group A matches against Ecuador, the Netherlands and hosts Qatar.
Romelu Lukaku was one of Europe's form strikers when Chelsea paid a club-record fee to re-sign the Belgian from Inter last year, but the 29-year-old's return to Stamford Bridge could hardly have gone more wrong. He is now back at Inter, though injuries have largely derailed his return, and he has played just twice since August.
Christopher Nkunku is in stellar form for RB Leipzig and could be an outsider for the top scorer award. The 24-year-old has scored an outstanding 52 goals since the start of last season, less than only Mbappe (58) and Lewandowski (68), with 47 of those strikes from non-penalty shots. Nkunku is yet to open his account for France, however.
Darwin Nunez might have had a frustrating start at Liverpool but is now hitting his stride, and could make a big impact for Uruguay, who are in Portugal's group along with Ghana and Son Heung-min's South Korea. While Messi is the main man for Argentina, Martinez could be another dark horse, especially with the little magician playing provider.
Neymar is Brazil's leading light but with Real Madrid star Vinicius Junior, the Selecao have another of Europe's best players over the course of the last 18 months. With Raphinha, Antony and Rodrygo bringing even more creativity, then whoever heads the attack – Gabriel Jesus and Richarlison will be fighting it out to lead the line – should fancy their chances.