The joke says that only one thing has stopped Leo Messi from becoming the best player in history – Gonzalo Higuain – a footballer trying to change a choking charge
When Juventus paid Napoli €90 million last July to make Gonzalo Higuain the most expensive South American footballer in history, many scoffed at what was perceived as a colossal waste of money for a striker approaching 30 with a reputation of bottling when the pressure is really on.
Nine months on and Higuain’s predatory performance in Monaco has left Juve on the brink of the Champions League final and a potentially historic treble but the 29-year-old can’t quite shake his unwanted reputation.
The departures of Carlos Tevez, Paul Pogba, Arturo Vidal and Andrea Pirlo from the Juventus side that were beaten by Barcelona in the 2015 Champions League final would have been enough to derail a lesser club and there were certainly sceptics when the Bianconeri opted to smash the Italian transfer record on Higuain.
With the likes of Paulo Dybala and Miralem Pjanic, Juve have an outstanding supply line; what they wanted was an out-and-out goalscorer and in Serie A there was none better than Higuain.
The season prior with Napoli, Pipita had struck 36 times in the league, to not only win the Capocannoniere but equal a record set by Gino Rossetti in the 1928-29 season.
An extraordinary feat and a career highlight but by no means a flash in the pan for a striker who has done nothing but find the net since making his River Plate debut in 2005.
A brace in a superclasico made the son of former River defender Jorge Higuian a star and after only 41 senior appearances, the 19-year-old moved to Real Madrid for €12 million.
After an initially slow start, Higuain went on to score over 100 goals for Los Blancos in 264 matches and reached the century quicker than any other player, barring the legendary Raul, but after being deemed surplus to requirements at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu and departing for Naples it was easy to conclude that the striker was not quite elite-level.
Another 91 goals in just 146 appearances followed for Napoli, in addition to being sixth on Argentina’s list of all-time top scorers but it would appear that all of these achievements and accolades are lost, or at least diluted, by a series of high-profile misses.
Lionel Messi and Argentina’s golden generation could feasibly have cemented themselves as one of the great international sides, if Higuain had taken the chances that supporters at any of the club sides he has played at, have seen him gobble up instinctively.
The one-on-one miss against Germany in the World Cup final; the failure to divert Ezequiel Lavezzi’s low cross into the empty net and subsequent wild penalty in the shootout defeat to Chile at the 2015 Copa America; and then another woeful effort when bearing down on Claudio Bravo’s goal in 2016 all contributed to Higuain’s reputation as the man who cost Argentina glory.
There was a significant penalty miss for Napoli too, that cost the Italians a place in the Champions League spot on the final day of the of 2015/16 season, but perhaps for redeeming himself in the subsequent season, it is the misses for Argentina that still cast a shadow of Higuain’s career.
One of the few players ahead of Higuain in the Argentina scoring stakes, Hernan Crespo has said that, “It’s a psychological issue more than a technical one,” and that much seems clear but Argentina supporters fear that the 29-year-old has had his chance and if such fragility exists, Higuain can’t be trusted at another major tournament.
However, the River Plate graduate has rejected any talk of retirement despite the abuse and remains firmly in Argentina’s plan and while it may remain a hot topic of debate in Argentina, Juventus don’t care one bit.
The match winning brace against Monaco was Higuain’s 31st of the season in all competitions and the last Juve striker to reach the 30-goal mark was David Trezeguet some fifteen years ago.
The type of numbers demanded from a €90 million signing have Juve sitting nine points clear at the top of Serie A, a sixth-straight scudetto beckons and the Coppa Italia final awaits but there is sense that none of this will do for Massimiliano Allegri’s side until the Champions League trophy is lifted.
For this objective, Higuain wasn’t the obvious signing given his less than impressive record in the competition, having scored only twice in 24 Champions League knockout matches.
The centre-forward’s missed opportunities against Barcelona in the quarter final and the inauspicious start to the game in the Stade Louis II had the critics sharpening their knives until Higuain’s brace silenced them.
The tally of five in this year’s tournament represents Higuain’s best season and after facing questions regarding his drought, the Argentina international reminded the press of something that his former Real Madrid teammate and mentor at the time, Ruud van Nistelrooy told him: “Goals are like ketchup. Sometimes as much as you try, they don’t come out, and then they come all of a sudden.”
Juve will certainly be hoping that is the case should they complete the job against Monaco and face Real Madrid in the final but on a personal level, Higuain needs it too.
For all the league goals, for all the group stage or knockout round goals, for all the World Cup qualifying goals, until Higuain breaks his hoodoo and finds the net in a major final, the unwanted reputation as one of football’s biggest chokers will hang over him.