SHANGHAI, China (AFP) — Chinese soccer clubs made headlines by splashing out on the likes of strikers Carlos Tevez, Hulk and Alexandre Pato, but cut-price Israeli Eran Zahavi is outgunning them all at the top of the scoring charts.
His feat in smashing 23 Chinese Super League (CSL) goals in 22 appearances this season is all the more remarkable when you consider that he plays for a wildly inconsistent Guangzhou R&F side that is sixth in the 16-team table.
The Israeli international also cost a fraction of many of his more famous peers, Guangzhou spending a relatively measly 7.2 million euros to snare him from Maccabi Tel Aviv in June last year.
And what a signing Zahavi, who can also play attacking midfield, has been.
His goal haul puts him way ahead of the second top-scorer in the CSL, Guangzhou Evergrande’s Brazilian forward Ricardo Goulart (16 goals), and numerous expensive big-name strikers are also trailing behind.
Zahavi celebrated his birthday last month — “I’m 30 years old but I feel like I’m 25” — and is in the form of his life.
“I’m facing new challenges in China, the league here is developing and I try to help Chinese soccer develop here and around the world,” Zahavi told Chinese soccer app Dongqiudi.
Zahavi’s goals and particular knack of scoring against Guangzhou Evergrande, R&F’s rivals and reigning CSL champions, has made him a fan favourite.
He has plundered four goals in Guangzhou derbies this season and said: “I really like scoring against them for the team and also for the fans. The derby is always the most important match of the year and it’s always nice to score goals against the leaders and the best teams.”
Prior to China, Zahavi spent most of his career in Israel, except for an unsuccessful spell in Italy at Palermo, where he scored only twice in two years before moving to Maccabi in 2013.
He is thriving under the offensive-minded management of Dragan Stojkovic, the former Yugoslavia international.
“We play a passing game and in most of our games we control the game, always scoring goals,” Zahavi said.
“Sometimes we suffer with our defensive game because we go forward too much and we play our game and don’t think too much about the opponent.
“I think people in China like to see R&F and how we play. I think it’s a very important part of football that the fans enjoy coming to the game.”
Although he is enjoying life and soccer in China, Zahavi admits he misses the UEFA Champions League.
If he carries on at this staggering goal-scoring rate, teams in Europe might come sniffing.
It was in the continent’s premier competition that he scored his most memorable goal — an overhead kick for Hapoel Tel Aviv against Lyon in 2010.
“The goal I scored in the Champions League group stage was very special for me. When I was five years old I would see Champions League games and I asked God to let me have a part in these games and to show my quality to the world and to be famous for football and to try my best,” he said.
“And when you come to this moment and score such a nice goal in the most important competition in the world you just feel proud of yourself.
“All the hard effort put in had paid off.”