Saka’s ‘rare’ talent fuels Arsenal’s title charge
Bukayo Saka will re-focus on Arsenal’s Premier League title push on Saturday after enhancing his reputation as one of the world’s top young players with a wonder goal in England colours.
The forward has played a central role in the Gunners’ bid to be crowned champions for the first time since 2004 while also starring for Gareth Southgate’s national side.
No longer merely a promising prodigy from Arsenal’s youth academy, the 21-year-old scored a stunning goal in England’s 2-0 win against Ukraine in a Euro 2024 qualifier at Wembley last Sunday.
In a breathtaking blur of grace and guile, Saka turned away from the Ukraine defence before unleashing a glorious shot that arrowed into the top corner from 20 yards.
It was Saka’s eighth international goal — only Dixie Dean, Jimmy Greaves, Wayne Rooney and Michael Owen have netted more for England at such a young age.
For Saka’s Arsenal team-mate Oleksandr Zinchenko, at Wembley in his role as Ukraine captain, it was a rare occasion when he was not pleased by the forward’s ability to produce a moment of pure artistry.
Saka had already set up England’s opening goal for Harry Kane with a pin-point cross.
“He is an amazing player, we know that,” said Zinchenko. “He is on fire at the moment.
“There are no friends on the pitch and unfortunately he beat me. In these kind of games, big players decide the game.”
Zinchenko and Saka will be back on the same side when Arsenal host Leeds on Saturday looking to maintain their eight-point lead over second-placed Manchester City as the title race enters the final furlong.
If Mikel Arteta’s men emerge on top, Saka will have done much of the heavy lifting, with 12 goals and 10 assists in 28 league games so far.
He is the only player this season in double figures for both goals and assists in the Premier League.
– ‘Never satisfied’ –
Saka has started every league game, taking more shots than any of his team-mates except Martin Odegaard and amassing the third most tackles by a Gunners player.
Asked if Saka is the Premier League’s best on current form, Zinchenko said: “I’m not the guy who is going to judge but he is one of them for sure.
“I hope he is on this form for the rest of the season because he is such an important player for Arsenal.”
Yet when the crowd rose in unison to acclaim Saka’s superb goal against Ukraine, it was tempting to wonder if his mind had drifted back to a painful evening at the same venue less than two years ago.
On a febrile Wembley night in July 2021, Saka endured the worst experience of his career when his missed penalty condemned England to a 3-2 shoot-out defeat in the European Championship final against Italy.
Saka was devastated, admitting he had “let the England family down”, but that did not stop an ugly backlash, including racist abuse, on social media.
Softly spoken with a shy personality, Saka showed impressive maturity as he vowed not to let the negativity “break me” and has produced consistently excellent performances.
Arsenal have reportedly opened talks with the London-born star over a contract extension that would make him the club’s highest-paid player on weekly wages of around £300,000 ($370,000).
However, in a clue to the motivational force behind Saka’s rise, Arteta made it clear he is not the finished article just yet.
“The consistency that he has shown, at his age and at this level, it is something rare to see,” Arteta said.
“If you ask me if he has room for improvement, I would say yes, a lot.
“He’s never satisfied and he can still do a lot of things better and more efficiently. But we are really pleased to have him.”