BARCELONA (Reuters) - Valencia forward Simone Zaza has overcome his Euro 2016 penalty shootout trauma and a disastrous campaign in the Premier League to become second top scoring striker in La Liga this campaign, only trailing Lionel Messi.
The Italian has hit nine goals in 10 Liga starts and scored in six consecutive weeks, fuelling Valencia’s unlikely title bid which sees them host Messi with leaders Barcelona on Sunday with the chance to cut the gap with the Catalans down to one point.
It has been quite the turnaround for Zaza, who was ridiculed on social media for his miss against Germany in the Euro 2016 quarter-finals, when he was brought on especially to take a penalty and took a long, staggered run up only to balloon the ball over the bar as his team were sent packing.
Zaza said in an interview with Italian daily Gazzetta dello Sport that the penalty “traumatised” him and led to severe weight loss.
The anxiety spilled over into his brief and unhappy loan spell at West Ham United, where he failed to score in 11 games, which he said resulted in him “going crazy”.
Italian coach Cesare Prandelli played a big role in offering Zaza an escape route to Valencia although resigned before the player joined up with the club.
He needed five games to open his account with his new club, against Athletic Bilbao and followed up with an opening goal in a 2-0 win over Real Madrid which he said “was like being reborn”.
Zaza began the season by scoring the only goal in a 1-0 win over Las Palmas but went off the boil for three games before hitting back with a nine-minute hat-trick in the 5-0 thrashing of Malaga.
It was the start of a scoring streak spanning six games, just one shy of equalling the club record which has stood for 74 years.
The goals included a late winner at Real Sociedad which lead to coach Marcelino pulling a muscle in the celebrations and deadlock-breaking goals against Alaves and Athletic Bilbao, with Valencia winning every game.
Zaza’s consistent form is all the remarkable as he has been playing through the pain of a knee injury which, coach Marcelino revealed last week, means he has to take occasional three-day breaks from training.
Zaza sat out last week’s 2-0 win at Espanyol which took Valencia six points ahead of Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid and is ready to face Barca and Messi, who is the league’s top scorer with 12 goals.
“It is not a new injury, I’ve had it for over a year, it’s common in football and we’ll decide what to do at the end of the year, but now it doesn’t prevent me playing and I‘m 100 percent,” he told Fox Sports Italia.
“I‘m not thinking about catching Messi, I‘m just excited about the game which comes as a great time for me and the team. We have to enjoy the evening, it will be a very difficult challenge but we have already shown that we can compete with anyone.”
Reporting by Richard Martin Editing by Jeremy Gaunt