Perhaps nothing could have been more appropriate than the final goal scored by Napoli’s peerless Argentine striker, Gonzalo Higuain, in a 4-0 home win against hapless, already relegated Frosinone on Saturday night. Not only did that win guarantee Napoli’s place in next season’s Champions League but it also wrote Higuain into the history books, as the all time leading Serie A goalscorer on 36 goals.
Having already put away two straightforward, six yard line poacher goals, Higuain put the cherry on the cake with an improbable, 71st minute overhead kick which was completely misjudged by the Frosinone ‘keeper, Brazilian Zappino. It was only fitting that a season in which Higuain has scored some utterly brilliant goals should end with a little touch of his pyro-technics in the final act.
Higuain’s star status sparkled bright on this final weekend of the Serie A season. Not only did he overtake the 66 year old record of Sweden and Milan striker, Gunner Nordhal, but he also did so at the end of a season when his phenomenal finishing and overall contribution to Napoli’s second place finish arguably made him the player of the Italian year.
It is indicative of his achievment that the player closest to him in the goalscorers’ chart, namely his Juventus compatriot, Paulo Dybala, scored 19 goals, just over half as many as Higuain. At this point, it is hardly an exageration to suggest that Higuain must be the strongest No. 9 striker to play in Italian football since his compatriot of the ’90s and early noughties, namely Gabriel Batistuta.
Mind you, when the thoughts of the Napoli fans turn to famous Argentines of the past, Batistuta is not the player foremost in their minds. The player they recall, of course, is Diego Armando Maradona, the little genius who led them to their only ever title wins back in 1987 and 1990. It was signficant that the fans at Naples’ San Paolo stadium the other night started to sing a song that has not been heard there since the Maradona days.
The song goes, “Oh Mamma, mamma, mamma…ho visto Maradona, ho visto Maradona” (I have seen Maradona play). Except that the other night it went “Ho visto Higuain, ho visto Higuain”. The Napoli fans can offer no greater praise than this.
To some extent, of course, Higuain owed one to Napoli. On this day, one year ago, he missed a penalty against Lazio which might have put Napoli, not Lazio, in this season’s Champions League.
The big question, too, now concerns the Champions League. In the immediate aftermath of Saturday’s game, Napoli boss, film tycoon Aurelio De Laurentis, indicated that he was willing to strengthen an already strong squad, thus providing more amunition for coach Maurizio Sarri and indeed for Higuain next season. That, of course, is taking it for granted that another club does not come along, looking for Higuain and willing to pay his €94 million euro buy-out clause. Unlikely, you would argue, but at 28 years of age and with at least another five seasons of top level football in his legs, nothing can be excluded.
In the meantime, Napoli have put their money on the table, buying the 26-year-Empoli defender Lorenzo Tonelli for next season. He might not be Higuain but he is a start to what could be a busy transfer market summer for Napoli.
Saturday night saw two other games which may well also prove to have huge transfer market implications. Both the currently struggling Milan sides went down to 3-1 defeats, with Inter losing away to little Sassuolo (now on the brink of a Europa League qualification) and Milan losing at home to Roma.
In his post match comments, Inter coach Roberto Mancini did not mince his words, suggesting that it would require “two or three experienced, quality players” for the club to do better next season. One suspects that numerous player comings and goings are imminent at Inter.
Meanwhile, it is not clear what Milan require to do better next season. Played off the park in a game in which Roma had 65% of possession, Milan look like a side that needs to be seriously reconstructed. In the last week, there has been a deal of media speculation suggesting that Swede Zlatan Ibrahhimovic might consider a return to Milan from Paris Saint Germain.
Even if that were to prove a good move – and that is wagering a lot – it is hard to see with just which players and with which coach, a new-look Milan might begin the climb back to its former lofty standing. At the moment, the decision to last month replace Serb coach Sinisa Mihajlovic with in-house youth team coach Christian Brocchi hardly looks inspired. In six games, Brocchi has collected eight points with two wins, two draws and two defeats.
It is hard to imagine that the ongoing uncertainty about the club’s future, with owner Silvio Berlusconi caught in a Hamletian quandry as he ponders whether “to sell or not to sell”, has much helped. Just now, it would seem that if Mr. Berlusconi did opt to hold onto his much loved club, he would most certainly be taking “arms against a sea of (Serie A) troubles”.
The Milan-Roma game, however, did provide at least two very positive moments with the San Siro offering a standing ovation to both Milan’s long time goalkeeper, 39-year-old Christian Abbiati and to the Roma talisman, Francesco Totti. In a 22 year long professional career, Abbiati played for 15 seasons with Milan, winning three Italian titles and one Champions League trophy (2003) with the club.
So it was only correct that he should receive an ovation from the San Siro faithful as he finally retires. To put matters into a historical context, Abbiati celebrated with current Milan goalkeeper, Gigi Donnarumma, holding the 17-year-old’s arm aloft in a symbolic passing of the goalkeeping baton.
As for Totti, he is becoming his own cliché. For the seventh consecutive time in the last month, he came on as a late second half substitute in the Milan game. Yet again, he made an important, if not necessarily decisive contribution, laying on a typically cheeky Totti back heel to set up a goal for Brazilian reserve Emerson in the 82nd minute.
Before that, however, both the Milan and the Roma fans had given him a standing ovation in the 63rd minute, when he was brought on as a substitute for Dutchman Keven Strootman. If, as seems likely, Totti plays on next season in this final half hour substitute’s role, then one suspects we are going to see a lot of such ovations, up and down Italy next year.
As for the Serie A season, itself, only two related issues remain to be decided. Namely, who will win the Italian Cup Final next weekend between champions Juventus and Milan. The point here is that victory in the Cup final represents a chance for Milan to catch the last bus into the Europa League. If they lose to Juventus, then the remarkable Sassuolo, currently sixth and four points clear of Milan in the Serie A table, will play in European competition for the first time in their history. Not bad for a club which first arrived in Serie A, just three years ago.
SERIE A PLACINGS:
Champions League: Juventus, Napoli, AS Roma (qualifying round)
Europa League: Inter, Fiorentina, Sassuolo (or AC Milan)
Relegation: Verona, Frosinone, Carpi
36 Higuain (Napoli)
19 Dybala (Juventus)
18 Bacca (AC Milan)
16 Icardi (Inter)