Reports emanating from Italy last week suggest Gonzalo Higuain is currently in a ‘fired up’ mood. Dropped from the Argentina squad for the latest round of qualifying games in favour of Inter’s Mauro Icardi has seemingly sprung the 29-year-old striker into action.
This season represents a make or break campaign for Higuain: to once and for all prove the naysayers wrong about his temperament in the biggest games, to banish his lengthy list of critics who sneer at the suggestion that he’s a world class striker.
His opening season in Turin was both a success and a failure, depending on how you interpret it. Higuain scored 24 goals in Serie A, and 32 goals in all competitions, a decent return on an overinflated €90m investment, one might say, the kind you’d be happy with from playing one of the games available at ChanceHill.
Yet dig a little deeper under the surface and the stats can be a little misleading.
In four games against Milan and Inter he failed to find the net. On the other hand, many could point to his three strikes over the course of two Turin derbies and his winners against old club Napoli and nearest title challengers Roma as proof of his ability to score when it matters most.
The crux of the matter is that how Higuain performs in the league is essentially immaterial. He wasn’t bought to land Juventus another league title: The Old Lady has been lifting the scudetto on auto-pilot mode for the last several years. Juve triggered his release clause at Napoli to help them win the big one, the Champions League. This is where Higuain, when his time at Juventus inevitably draws to a close, will eventually be judged. And so far, the verdict isn’t good.
A group containing fairly average opposition in the shape of Sevilla, Dinamo Zagreb and Lyon saw Higuain score three goals, including a penalty against the French side. As the knockout stages began and as Juve advanced, Higuain’s contributions were few and far between, and he continually looked like an expensive passenger as Porto and Barcelona were swept aside.
Higuain offered little in attack and meandered through games, seemingly paralyzed by fear, following years of criticism for not doing enough, the difference between the Higuain of Serie A and the European counterpart like night and day.
When he dispatched Dani Alves’ beautiful backheel into the bottom corner of the Monaco net in the first leg of the semi-final, he broke a four-year drought in the decisive phase of the tournament. His tally of four knockout goals in 27 games is remarkably poor for a player of his ability.
Despite an assist for Mario Mandzukic’s wonderful-but-ultimately-insignificant goal in the Final, Higuain put in an abject display. Former Juve midfielder and Champions League winner Angelo Di Livio was particularly scathing in his assessment of Higuain’s performance in Cardiff. “Who disappointed me the most? Certainly Higuain. I was expecting a lot from Pipita, or at least something more in terms of his technical quality and hunger for goals. Higuain is the one who made the biggest impression on me in a negative way.”
Whilst no one in black and white could’ve held their head high after the catastrophic collapse in the second half, this was another final in which he had failed to make his mark, yet another poor performance to add to the ever-growing list that have blighted his reputation over the course of the decade, seemingly a striker with huge mental baggage.
Higuain is fast running out of time to avenge the failures in his career. He turns 30 in December, so whilst not exactly over the hill territory, if his European displays don’t show remarkable improvement on last year’s, Juventus may just start to survey the scene and look for a younger and less mentally-scarred striker, and with that, his opportunity to prove that his name belongs at the upper echelons of the game would be lost for good.
Can Higuain exorcise his big game demons and lead Juventus to Champions League glory? The jury is very much still out.