Paddy Agnew’s Notes From Italy: Gonzalo Higuain And the Weight Of A Missed Penalty
After this weekend, you could be forgiven for thinking that AC Milan’s Argentine ace Gonzalo Higuain has a problem with penalties. To a large extent, any chance that AC Milan might have been able to stop the Juventus juggernaut at the San Siro on Sunday night went right out the window just before halftime when Higuain missed a penalty which would have seen the teams go in on a 1-1 scoreline.
It is, incidentally, not really fair to call this merely a penalty “missed” by Higuain, rather than a penalty “saved” by his former team mate, Polish goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny. In truth, the Juventus keeper, as he later admitted, made full use of his intimate, training ground knowledge of the Argentine, diving the right way to touch the penalty onto the post.
What is also true is that, athough the penalty was low and angled into the corner, it was very much a penalty that had been placed rather than blasted. Higuain has struck many better shots. Never mind, this miss will now stand alongside his miss in against Chile in the penalty shootout of the 2015 Copa America in Chile when to the delight of the home fans, he blasted it all right, but blasted it over the bar.
Napoli fans, too, recall a painful penalty miss against Lazio at the end of the 2014-2015 season, a penalty miss which arguably set up Napoli for a 2-4 home loss that eliminated them from the following season’s Champions League. Mind you, it would be less than accurate to suggest that, but for this miss, Milan would have got something out of the game.
In reality, Gennaro Gattuso’s team had the bad luck to meet a Juventus side which was tuned hard and sharp, totally focussed in the wake of their disappointing midweek home loss to Manchester United in the Champions League. Having dominated the game, having taken the lead through a trully spectacular 65th minute goal from Cristiano Ronaldo, Juve failed to wrap it up when first Dybala hit the bar and then both Pjanic and Cuadrado missed sitters. The rest is history as United made Juve pay heavily for their profligacy with two goals in the last five minutes.
Such a defeat was always going to totally concentrate Juventus minds. So it did, with Juve taking the lead after only eight minutes when Croat Mario Mandzukic headed home a far post cross from left back, Brazilian Alex Sandro. As against Manchester, so against Milan, as Juventus then failed to hammer home their superiority.
This meant that, when Milan were awarded a 41st minute penalty (thanks to a handball from Moroccan defender Mehdi Benatia) on one of their rare ventures into the Juventus area , they had the chance to score an unlikely equaliser. It was not to be, though, as Szczesny pulled off his superb save.
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Of course, this was a penalty that was probably overloaded with significance for both striker and goalkeeper. Szczesny, for example, will hardly have failed to notice the harsh criticism generated by his mid-week performance against Man Utd. Former England midfielder Paul Scholes argued that Szczesny was the only Juventus weak link, telling BT Sport that the player had struggled for five years at Arsenal “and it doesn’t look like he has improved….”
Szczesny might have a had a point to prove but, arguably, Higuain had an even bigger score to settle. His career in recent years has been quite an odyssey. Somewhat “under-appreciated” at Real Madrid, he took the gamble of moving in 2013 to Napoli, where he became the utterly idolised kingpin, scoring a record 36 Serie A goals in the 2015-2016 season.
After three seasons, however, Higuain “betrayed” the Napoli fans by signing for Juventus in the summer of 2016. The idea was that he was going to be the man who would make the difference, would score the “heavy” goals that would finally win the Champions League. History will argue that he failed in that endeavour.
This summer, Juventus clearly franked that view when they opted to offload him to make way for another player from who has been called on to lead them to Champions League glory, namely his former Real Madrid team mate, one Cristiano Ronaldo. Inevitably, Higuain would dearly have liked to score against Juventus, if only in some way to restore professional pride after being painfully rejected by the Turin club.
All of which goes some way to explain, if not to justify, Higuain’s 83rd moment of madness when he “lost it”, earning himself a red card from refereee Paolo Mazzoleni, following a foul on Benatia. The red card came for dissent as the furious Higuain screamed at Mazzoleni, saying “you always book me, you always book me”.
Beside himself with rage (for which he later apologised) Higuain had to be hauled off by team mates past and present to stop him earning himself a super heavy ban. He will be lucky if the inevitable suspension is limited to the usual two days.
Higuain’s over the top exaggeration, however, was the expression of a pent-up frustration that came as much from the sense that there was nothing to do against this Juventus as from his own personal disappointment at missing the penalty. Not for nothing, the Higuain pressure cooker exploded just two minutes after Ronaldo (who else) had wrapped up the game with a straightforward tap-in.
If Juve’ win against Milan, confirming their six point lead over Napoli, hardly comes under the banner of “surprise”, the same cannot be said of Inter’s 4-1 collapse away to Atalanta. One week ago, we argued that a good performance in Inter’s midweek Champions League tie with Barcelona could prove to be a watershed moment in their season. A late 1-1 draw with Barca was hardly a resounding triumph but it at least seemed to indicate that Luciano Spalletti’s Inter were becoming a team of serious “character”.
Which is a lot more than you would be tempted to say after watching their wretched performance against an Atalanta side which ran them right off the park. “La pazza Inter”, the mad Inter is back among us. On the other hand, the strongest Atalanta, after the disappointment of an early season elimination from the Europa League, they too are back among us.
Two final thoughts – Napoli’s comeback on Saturday night in a 2-1 away win over Genoa (torrential downpour and temporarily suspended match notwithstanding ) and Roma’s 4-1 home win over Sampdoria will do their Champions League prospects no harm when that competition resumes after the next ten days of Nations League action.
For example, when Roma swing back into Champions League action, they face a fascinating home tie v Real Madrid. In the meantime, Italy face an equally fascinating, potentially decisive Nations League clash with European champions Portugal at the San Siro next Saturday night when the top of the table in League A, Group 3 is at stake. All to play for…
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