Gonzalo Higuain has plenty to gain but much to lose
That’s a facetious comment, but only slightly. For somebody who has achieved double figures for league goals scored in every season since 2008-09, somebody who cost €90million when he was signed by Juventus from Napoli last summer, somebody who will lead the line against Real Madrid in the Champions League final on Saturday, there is a curious ambivalence about attitudes to Higuain. This season began with questions about his weight; the kindest thing that can perhaps be said is that in a world of sleek and toned uber-athletes, he is a bustling throwback.
The more serious doubt about the 29-year-old, though, is his temperament. His reputation is of somebody who is fine to bully a couple of goals against Chievo or Pescara but who has a habit of faltering on the very highest stage. In Argentina, there is regret and perhaps a little anger over the golden chances he missed in both the 2014 World Cup final against Germany and the 2015 Copa America final against Chile. With a little more composure, they reflect, Argentina would be world and continental champions and one of the major factors used to denigrate Lionel Messi when he is compared to Diego Maradona would be gone.
Certainly, Higuain is a player of fragile self-belief. There was a time at Napoli when he missed three penalties in a row but the then-manager Rafa Benitez didn’t take him off spot-kick duties, reputedly because he realised that to do so would be such a blow to Higuain’s self-esteem that the overall impact would be worse than him missing another penalty.
He’d lost in three Champions League semi-finals with Real Madrid. In 24 Champions League knockout games, he’d scored only twice, neither of them away from home. It wasn’t hard to find evidence of Higuain as a big-game bottler. Then came this season’s Champions League semi-final against Monaco. Even then, Higuain started poorly, missing three excellent chances before, teed up by a Dani Alves backheel after 29 minutes, he swept in a goal from the edge of the box to give Juve the lead. Earlier in the season, Higuain quoted advice given to him by Ruud van Nistelrooy at Real Madrid about overcoming goal droughts, likening them to ketchup bottles: “You try but they won’t come out. Then... they all come out at once.” Sure enough, a second soon followed as he volleyed in a Dani Alves cross just before the hour.
Saturday’s Champions League final against his former club, of course, is another step up again, but it feels as though the polarities have changed, that he goes into the game as the man who might win it for Juve, rather than the man who might lose it.
Juve themselves have something of a reputation of choking in European finals – which is one the reasons Gianluigi Buffon, after such a long and illustrious career, still hasn’t won a Champions League. He played in 2015 when Juve were over-run by Barcelona and also in 2003 when they lost on penalties to AC Milan. In total, Juve have lost in six of their eight finals, including against Real Madrid in 1998. While their defence, the age-old rearguard of Buffon, Giorgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci and, possibly, Andrea Barzagli, is the undoubted strength of the side – they’ve conceded only three goals in the Champions League all season – Higuain and his fellow Argentine, Paulo Dybala, offer an attacking edge.
So effective has the Dybala-Higuain partnership been that, the need to accommodate Messi notwithstanding, it seems vaguely bizarre that they are not an automatic selection for the Argentina national side. Dybala has scored ten goals and set up seven for Juve in Serie A this season, after scoring 19 and setting up nine last year. His two goals against Barcelona in the quarter-final took his Champions League tally to four. In a team noted for its defensive strength, he is the creative spark who can unlock a game. “I call Dybala ‘Square R2’,” said Paul Pogba, who played alongside Dybala as Juve won the Scudetto last season. “That’s the combination you press on PlayStation to do a turn and shot. He always scores like that.”
There’s a certain truth to that, but Dybala’s strength is his versatility. Growing up at Instituto in Cordoba, Dybala operated as a No.10, but his interpretation of the role was never conventional.
“They say that when you’re a kid a great player will go past ten,” said Gustavo Gotti, his strike partner in those days. “Not him. He cleaned out one and then gave you the right pass. He played fast, simple… he made a difference with shots from outside the area. A little like what he does now.”
There was an efficiency about his game, an understanding of the bigger picture, something enhanced in 2011 when, at a youth tournament in Chile, he was pushed forward alongside Gotti. The awareness of both roles is key to Dybala, a goalscorer and a creator. The Uruguayan former Manchester United forward Diego Forlan has compared him to Sergio Aguero, which seems more fitting than inevitable description of Dybala as “the new Messi”. But if he is like Aguero, it’s Aguero as he was when he played alongside Forlan at Atletico, an inventive, buzzing presence who operated across the front line.
The defence may have drawn most of the headlines, and it stands out because of how poor so much defending has been in the Champions League this season, but Juve are about more than that. They’re arguably the most balanced side in Europe this season and if they are to prevail in Cardiff they are likely to need not merely their defence to perform, but also their Argentine duo up front. And if Higuain does, perhaps the doubts about him will finally melt away.