It just had to be him, Gonzalo Higuain, once Napoli’s most loved son but now the “traitor” to the neapolitan cause. In the 70th minute of last Saturday night’s Juventus v Napoli clash, the Argentine did what he is paid to do, scoring the goal which wrapped up a 2-1 home win in a game when, yet again, Juventus had played some way off their highest standards.
This has been a strange summer and autumn for Higuain. In the wake of his €90 million move to the Old Lady of Turin, he has come in for no small amount of criticism. His Napoli shirt was wrapped around dustbins in central Naples whilst huckster street stalls sold toilet paper rolls bearing his face. Without great originality, the Napoli fans renamed him “Merdain” (Shit-ain), a point underlined by former Napoli great Diego Maradona who insists on calling him a “traitor”.
After three hugely successful seasons at Napoli and more especially after an epic year last season when he scored a record breaking 36 goals, Higuain had done the unthinkable, “betraying” his neapolitan love for the Old Lady. It was a hard one for the Napoli fans to swallow but last Saturday night, he made that even harder when scoring the winning goal.
All week long, Italian sports media had speculated on what he would do if he scored a goal against his old club. Would he exult, thus annoying the Napoli fans even further? In the end, Higuain showed the restraint he has displayed throughout this autumn, indulging in no celebrations but rather holding his hands out wide in an almost Christ-like gesture.
As well as showing respect for his old club’s fans, the gesture also seemed to say something else. Namely, keep calm, folks, this is what I am paid to do. Higuain will almost certainly never score 36 Serie A goals in a season for Juventus but that matters little. Juventus have bought him to score “quality” goals and that is what he did last Saturday night.
Whereas the entire Napoli game revolved around him, with the team essentially playing to and for him, things are obviously different at Juventus. He is one, perhaps a Special One, amongst many class players in Turin – guys like Croat Mario Mandzukic, Argentine Paulo Dybala, Claudio Marchisio and, of course, the BBBC (Buffon, Bonucci, Barzagli and Chiellini) are all heavy dudes, too.
The point about Higuain at Juventus is that the Turin club bought a class finisher not to sore a hatful of goals but rather to score a few “heavy” goals, especially in the Champions League. Having rattled in a “heavy” goal in Serie A last Saturday night, the club would just love to see him do the same thing in the Champions League, starting as of Wednesday night at home to Lyon.
Talking to daily Gazzetta Dello Sport on the eve of Wednesday night’s game, goalkeeper captain Gigi Buffon let the least well-guarded secret in Italian football out of the box, confessing in fact that nothing so much exercises the Juventus mind as the Champions League, saying:
“The arrival of Higuain has made us stronger and more determined but, after that, it depends on how far we want to go. That mentality might be enough to win again in Italy. But if, as we said to ourselves at the beginning of the season, we want to raise the bar in Europe, then we’ve got to make progress. Having reached a (Champions League) quarter final, a semi-final, even a final against sides like Bayern Munich and Barcelona is not enough, we’ve got to improve…”
Currently joint top of Group H with FC Seville on seven points, following a home draw with Seville and away wins against both Dinamo Zagreb and Lyon, Juventus would do their cause no harm with a win on Wednesday night. Juventus clearly want to a avoid a repeat of last year when a 1-0 away defeat to Seville left them in second place in their Group and set them up for that tantalising, but painful 4-2 second round defeat by Bayern.
Hence, the time has come for the goalscorer Higuain to deliver another heavy blow. As at the Juventus stadium on Saturday night, the Argentine will be partnered by Croat Mandzukic in attack, given that Dybala is ruled out by injury. A little more “understanding” between the two front men would not go amiss but that may take some time yet.
Two weeks ago against Lyon, Juventus were less than impressive, rode their luck and won a game that they hardly deserved to draw. To some extent, you could say the same of their Saturday night triumph over Napoli in a game when for periods Napoli played the better football. At this moment in the season, coach Massimiliano Allegri will not mind. Good football will come later. At this stage the important thing is to play badly but win and no Italian side is more doggedly capable of that than this Juventus.