GIUSEPPE CACACE/Getty Images
February 28, 2017
Time was ticking by at Juventus Stadium. The hosts—who had taken the lead through Leonardo Bonucci only to see Jose Callejon equalise for Napoli—were struggling to create an opening in this October meeting between these two Serie A giants.
Picking the ball up after a throw-in, Gonzalo Higuain turned towards the opposition box and spotted Sami Khedira’s run into the box. He lofted the ball towards the German midfielder, and while those around him stood still, he moved forward in anticipation that the defence ahead of him might make a mistake.
They did, inexplicably allowing Khedira to lay the ball back to his advancing team-mate. For a brief moment, time stood still as the 21 other players on the field and the 41,000 fans in attendance knew what was coming.
Unmarked 16 yards from goal and with Pepe Reina rooted to the spot, it was inevitable. Higuain beat the ‘keeper with ease as he thumped the ball into the back of the net—2-1 Juventus. But as the jubilant home crowd chanted his name, he spread his arms wide in a gesture of apology to his former club.
Indeed, just three months earlier, the Bianconeri had triggered a release clause in his contract, their official website revealing they paid a €90 million fee to bring him to Turin. That sum was never going to be consolation enough for Napoli losing the deadly front man, especially after he struck 36 goals in just 35 Serie A appearances last term.
“He was very happy, naturally this was a special game for him,” Allegri told Sky Italia (h/t Football Italia) shortly after the striker secured victory. “He made a choice to come here and absolutely should not feel like a traitor. Instead, he made a courageous decision.”
Higuain refused to celebrate against Napoli.GIUSEPPE CACACE/Getty Images
Now, the Coppa Italia semi-finals have pitted the two clubs against each other once again, and that offers an opportunity to see how Higuain has fared since making the move. Already 29 years old, he was undoubtedly an expensive acquisition, but there is little doubt that his new side had grabbed a top player.
“I was pretty sure that Juventus had bought the best No. 9 in the world,” Romeo Agresti of JTV—Juve’s in-house channel—told Bleacher Report recently. “In my personal opinion, he’s better than Luis Suarez and Robert Lewandowski.”
Having bagged 19 league goals this term, Higuain is ahead of that duo and trails only Edinson Cavani of Paris Saint-Germain (26), Olympique Lyonnais’ Alexandre Lacazette (22) and Barcelona star Lionel Messi (20).
Adam Digby via WhoScored/Squawka
Compiled using statistics from WhoScored.com and Squawka.com, the table above compares Higuain’s impact with that trio as well, as AS Roma’s Edin Dzeko who has matched the Juve striker’s goal tally thus far.
He stands up well in such a comparison; Lacazzette is the only player on that list to have taken fewer shots and also boast a marginally better level of accuracy. Clearly playing against a higher standard of competition in Italy, it is worth noting that when Juve met Lyon in the UEFA Champions League—earning a 1-1 draw and a 1-0 win—Higuain scored and the Frenchman did not.
That helped the Bianconeri reach the latter stages while the Ligue 1 side dropped into the UEFA Europa League, and it is in continental competition where the Serie A side truly need Higuain to deliver.
Having taken a 2-0 away lead in their last-16 clash with FC Porto, Juventus are hoping Higuain can fire them to a deep run this term and he has already bagged three goals in just 514 minutes of action.
The impact he has had has grown even greater since coach Massimiliano Allegri opted to change to a 4-2-3-1 formation following a loss to Fiorentina back in January. Juventus as a team have improved exponentially in the nine matches since, winning every game and outscoring opponents by 19 goals to two.
Higuain has netted six times and added two assists in that period, clearly benefitting from a switch that routinely sees him spearhead a starting XI that the boss ensured contains a wealth of attacking talent.
Juve’s new 4-2-3-1 formation.Adam Digby (via lineup11.com)
Often managing to accommodate the likes of Paulo Dybala, Juan Cuadrado, Mario Mandzukic and Miralem Pjanic behind him, Higuain is delighted with the setup, as he explained back in January, according to Juve’s official website:
It’s a system that allows us to perform well. Allegri showed courage to use it and we proved that it was possible. I’m feeling great and it’s always easier when you see your team-mates putting in the hard work like they did today.
Obviously, it requires more effort from us to help the team, but you have to say that we’ve not been troubled much in our recent matches. This needs to be a foundation for us – we can’t stop now. We have to make sure our attitude is right every time because that’s what allows us to go on and create chances.
That is true, but more than the statistics or his goal tally, what Higuain has given Juventus is the belief that comes from playing with such a predatory scorer and high-quality forward.
Bleacher Report UK @br_uk
Two goals on Sunday
12 goals in his last 12 games
21 goals this season
2/14/2017, 8:59:19 AM
Even in tight, difficult encounters in front of hostile crowds, the Bianconeri play with a freedom that only comes with the knowledge that the man in the No. 9 shirt needs only the slightest of openings.
“I remember that I told myself: ‘This is the best player to try to help Juve win the Champions League,'” JTV’s Agresti said. “And I still believe that because Higuain is one of the best players in the world, and he chose Juventus because he wants to win!”
He does, and on Tuesday evening, it will once again be his former side standing in his way, a painful experience for Napoli, as one of their supporters explained to Bleacher Report this week.
Bravest young man on earth wears an Higuain jersey in Naples https://t.co/BLqEx7IbHk
2/28/2017, 3:14:21 AM
“Initially, it felt like a kick in the junk,” Gianni said. “Even worse, he was sold to our biggest rival. But I understand it’s a business and the sale was a tremendous profit that allowed us to do some important work last summer.”
“I don’t miss him one bit,” the life-long Partenopei fan adds, but—like those in the video above—he eventually cannot help but reveal his true feelings. “To be honest seeing him score in the Juve shirt just about every week does make me cringe.”
.@OfficialAllegri: “@G_Higuain? The last time he played in #JuveNapoli, he was decisive.” #CoppaItalia https://t.co/mpWeHdApH8
2/27/2017, 11:20:57 AM
The majority of the southern Italian city will share that sentiment, holding their collective breath should a chance fall the way of their former idol. Yet as the quote above from his pre-match press conference indicates, Allegri has little reason to doubt that his most expensive signing can prove vital once again.
Higuain may have cost €90 million and alienated those who once loved him, but fans who cheer for him in the famous black and white of Juventus don’t doubt he was worth every penny.