An underwhelming finish to last season is part-fueling Gonzalo Higuain’s rise as Serie A’s most formidable hitman this term, writes Jeremy Lim...
HIGUAIN IN 2015/16
- Apps: 9 (2)
- Goals: 8
- Assists: 2
- Minutes played: 758
He packed his bags and left the club for the summer. The surprise was that Gonzalo Higuain wasn't leaving Napoli for good, even if he must have thought once or twice about quitting during the season that had just concluded.
But what has surprised most is that today his Napoli are among the title favourites; fourth in Serie A, three points behind leaders Fiorentina.
It’s not just that last term’s fifth-placed finishers are up there, competing at the top despite adjusting to a new coach and revamped squad. It's also about how they've got there.
Lazio were buried under an avalanche of goals first, with Higuain at the double in a 5-0 romp. Juventus fell next to the Napoli talisman’s talents. And even if the Italian champions aren't all that this season, then came confirmation that none of their results were chance: the 4-0 mauling of Milan at San Siro.
Higuain’s exploits in front of goal mean he leads Serie A’s Capocannoniere standings with six. The momentum is now swinging in favour of the forward and his club, who were apparently looking to cash in during the transfer window – or at least that's what the papers were writing. Admittedly, the stories were not totally without foundation. Rafa Benitez, the coach who convinced Higuain to swap the Santiago Bernabeu for the San Paolo in 2013, had already gone in the opposite direction – his career moving up, while Higuain and Napoli were seemingly headed down.
If the 27-year-old had represented Napoli’s rise in profile when he first joined, then he became synonymous with their slip out of contention for Champions League qualification last term.
For two seasons, he had finished as the club’s top scorer, his goals instrumental in delivering one Coppa Italia and a Supercoppa Italiana. But the sensations didn't always match the statistics exactly, and at times he was vilified by a partisan home crowd that had once treated him as the next saviour since Diego Maradona twice inspired the club to the Scudetto nearly 20 years ago.
He blazed over from the penalty spot in the 4-2 home loss to Lazio that meant the capital team qualified for Europe’s premier club competition at the Partenopei’s expense on the final day of last season, which had threatened to write the obituary for his time at Napoli. Afterwards, his taxi – also containing his mother and brother – was assaulted by his own fans. Arsenal and Atletico Madrid turned up over the summer, offering the Argentina international an escape.
He had suffered when there hadn't been enough success to go around, turning his people against him
But the offer new coach Maurizio Sarri presented him upon his arrival – a chance to make amends – had been greater in magnitude. And for what it was worth, Higuain preferred not to leave behind a career itch by abandoning what he had begun. In order to feel embraced, the striker had already shunned the safe, sanitised destination of north London for the raw, primal one of Naples when first leaving Real Madrid.
Comparisons to what his compatriot Maradona achieved there were never ones he should have been held up to, but they were convenient anyway. Besides, he had only been too keen to encourage them, such was his desire to be central. “Here, I’m treated like a king,” the No.9 said soon after he joined. Yet he had suffered when there hadn't been enough success to go around, turning his people against him.
Sarri needed Higuain to focus on being Napoli’s leader on the pitch, rather than obsess over becoming their legend. “He must rest, both physically and mentally, and not have fatigue from last year,” the former Empoli coach said upon his arrival. “Lately when I’ve seen him he’s looked too nervous, he has to go out there and have fun. Whoever smiles and has fun on the pitch always wins in the long run.”
And even though the club’s wait for the Scudetto has not yet ended, the forward is playing like a weight has been lifted from his shoulders. Liberated, and with plenty to prove after his series of high-profile misses that proved costly for Napoli and Argentina last term, Higuain has provided the Naples crowd with plenty of significant moments this term, and fans have returned to showering him with their affection. “I have a good understanding with Sarri, he was close to me during the summer and made me feel at ease and at the heart of his tactical project,” noted the refreshed star.
Secure under Sarri
So far, Sarri’s sincerity has seen player and coach strike up an effective partnership. “I tell him to his face what he’s doing well and what he’s doing wrong,” affirmed the coach. How the chain-smoking, track-suited 56-year-old who had just completed a maiden season in Serie A would convince a World Cup finalist of his methods had initially been beyond many.
I tell him to his face what he’s doing well and what he’s doing wrong
Instead, the pair owe each other everything now. It is that, together, they are not just winning games, but winning fans and neutrals alike over too. It is that Higuain’s goals are serving as a crucial catalyst in Napoli's climb up the table.
“He can give us what a world-class player does,” Sarri insisted. Behind Higuain is his coach. On the pitch, out to his left, is the imperious Lorenzo Insigne.
Together, the pair form Serie A’s most lethal strikeforce. They have combined for 12 league goals this campaign – more than champions Juventus, or third-placed Inter. Elevated to Europe, they have managed to match the domestic output of Neymar and Luis Suarez – Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema as well.
Napoli believe the small partnership between Insigne and Higuain could be what makes their club great again. And though Sarri continues to remain guarded over the team's objectives so as not to unnecessarily raise expectations, there is the sense that the southern side can be genuine contenders in Serie A this time.
They have pursued the title for almost two decades now. And no matter how early, silverware can feel closer now thanks to the form of their formidable forwards. “Scudetto? There’s a long way to go, we have to make the most of every opportunity and slowly build on what we have,” Higuain says. His goals ensure he is a cornerstone of the club’s project once again.
And every time the Napoli talisman dispatches a side that beat them last season, helping his team rise up the standings and close on a long-awaited dream in the process, he vindicates his decision to stay put.