Gonzalo Higuain is the Marmite of strikers: people seem to either love him or hate him. Much of this tends to be down to how often you watch him play. If you only saw him in the most important matches of his career, you’d be forgiven for thinking he was some overweight chump who lucked into the role with all the cool-headed demeanour of a trainee barista. Pipita is known to many as the ultimate choker, the epitome of why Argentina fail to win major tournaments and the belly that launched a thousand memes.
It’s nonsense, of course, as he has a stellar record in Serie A and at international level, but not necessarily in the games that catch the eye. There is a saying in England when people want to belittle a star forward: “Ah, but can he do it on a cold, rainy night in Stoke?” Higuain has the precise opposite problem. He’d love the Britannia Stadium on a Tuesday evening in the freezing drizzle, battling it out with stoic defenders determined to chop him down at every opportunity. That’s where Higuain thrives. Put him in a Champions League showdown with Real Madrid or a Copa America Final and you have a different story. At least, that’s what the common view of the Argentine seems to be.
Tonight’s quarter-final in Turin comes at a remarkably bad time for Higuain. Only last week, he was utterly humiliated by a series of shocking misses in Atletico Madrid’s Wanda Metropolitano Stadium, where Spain crushed Argentina 6-1 in a friendly. Real Madrid talent Isco scored a hat-trick in that game, but the name on everyone’s lips was Higuain thanks to some truly special misses. His vague waft to turn the cross over when unmarked from six yards was just made to go viral.
There’s a familiar scenario now with Pipita: he’s sent clear one against one with the goalkeeper and still can’t find the net. We’ve seen it time and time again, always in the biggest games, in the brightest spotlight on the most prestigious stage. World Cup Final. Copa America Final – twice. Last season, Higuain netted a brace against Monaco on Juve’s way to the Champions League Final. Impressive, other than for the fact those were his first career goals in the knockout round of the tournament since April 2013.
Maybe he has turned a corner. He was the most important player in the Round of 16 success against Tottenham Hotspur, scoring twice in the first leg, then in a few minutes both finding the net and providing the wonderful assist for Paulo Dybala at Wembley. Nothing would send a message quite like a goal against Real Madrid, the side that flattened Juve in the Final last year and where he began his European experience.
Juventus paid €90m to prise Il Pipa away from rivals Napoli and it looks as if he could yet be decisive in giving them the Serie A title ahead of his former teammates. He has scored some important goals this term, most notably the only strike at the Stadio San Paolo and two against Milan. However, for the most part, Higuain’s goals have been against the lower-mid-table opponents, those fixtures without much pressure.
It had looked as if he’d shaken off that lack of confidence and calm in front of goal during big moments, but then came that Spain friendly and the miss that travelled round the Internet at the speed of light. Juventus have something to prove against Real Madrid, but nobody will be feeling that spotlight more than Higuain.