Despite being a reliable goal-scorer for Argentina, past sins have cast Gonzalo Higuaín into international exile, but goals for Juventus could save him
“I have Higuaín in my mind and I know what he represents. With him there is nothing to prove.”
If Jorge Sampaoli’s words were supposed to put Gonzalo Higuaín at ease, his decision to once more leave the Juventus striker out of his Argentina squad fires a stern warning so close to the World Cup.
“It will be up to us to make an evaluation and decide whether he will go to the World Cup or not,” Argentina’s fiery coach spelled out when naming his most recent squad for November’s friendlies against Russia and Nigeria.
Presumably the same evaluation that deemed Higuaín was behind the likes of Sergio Agüero, Mauro Icardi and Darío Benedetto.
Despite scoring 31 goals in 69 appearances for La Albiceleste and still being regarded as one of the best centre forwards in Europe, Higuaín has now featured for only 45 minutes under Sampaoli. Since the first half of the friendly against Brazil in Melbourne, the new coach’s debut after replacing Edgardo Bauza, Pipita has not featured.
While Lionel Messi was dragging Argentina towards Russia in Quito, Higuaín was watching at home: This, despite La Albiceleste having not scored from open play in five matches and clearly lacking goals.
While none of Sampaoli’s selected number nines got on the scoresheet in the previous World Cup qualifying double-header, all look set to given another opportunity next month (Benedetto is yet to officially be called given he plays his club football in Argentina). Sergio Agüero was forced to withdraw from the last squad but is fit again, regains his place and looks increasingly likely to be Sampaoli’s first choice.
And this leaves Higuaín in a tight spot. Once Argentina are done with November’s friendlies, only one more international break in March prior to the end of the season remains before Sampaoli will be naming his final 23-man squad for Russia.
If Agüero and Icardi impress against Russia and Nigeria will Sampaoli want to lose vital opportunities adjusting to his system, in order to give Higuaín a chance? Arguably one of Argentina’s problems has been this embarrassment of riches that has led to so many different number nines being used and cries for change after one or two matches without a goal.
So with the possible chances in an Argentina shirt limited, Higuaín may have to force Sampaoli’s attention for Juventus.
The issue here being that while Higuaín has managed four goals in twelve appearances this season, Agüero and Icardi are scoring almost a goal a game for Manchester City and Inter Milan respectively.
Outshone by compatriot Paulo Dybala, Juventus manager Massimiliano Allegri has shown frustration with Higuaín at times this season.
“Gonzalo has to be more decisive,” Allegri said with his side trailing Napoli and Inter in Serie A.
“So far he has done 50 per cent of what he could do. Higuaín is an extraordinary player, I get angry with him a lot because I demand more, because he can do much more.”
It hasn’t been the ideal start to the campaign for Higuaín but there have been some important goals and the 29-year-old is still getting in the right positions. As the old adage goes regarding centre forwards – start worrying when they aren’t getting chances.
Allegri is absolutely right. Higuaín is an extraordinary goal scorer and in the past two seasons at Napoli and Juventus, Pipita has proven himself to be a striker capable of the type of numbers only perhaps Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi can better.
The same can be said at international level for the most part as only a handful of players have scored more for La Albiceleste in history and since his debut in 2009, Higuaín has scored five World Cup goals (Agüero it should be noted has never scored at the tournament despite having more international goals to his name) and he was leading scorer in 2014 qualification.
So why is a player with such an exemplary record so roundly criticised and subjected to abuse?
Last week, one of the few players ahead of Higuaín in Argentina’s record books and someone who knows all there is to know about leading an attack summed this up.
“Higuain was treated very badly,” Gabriel Batistuta said on Argentinian radio after the Juve striker’s latest Argentina omission.
“Unfortunately, Pipita was condemned by a couple of mistakes: no-one had mercy on him and this has impacted on his performances a tad, but it doesn’t mean that he’s forgotten how to play.”
Those mistakes that Batistuta speaks of were of course the costly misses in the World Cup final and two Copa América finals that ended with Argentina only picking up runners-up medals. It is this that has helped carve out the reputation of Higuaín ‘The bottler’ and why so many no longer trust the 29-year-old ahead of a major tournament.
Batistuta’s assessment is tough to disagree with in part: “He’s one of the best strikers around. He’s not done much lately, in accordance with his potential, but he’s a number nine that Argentina must count on.
“He has to go to the World Cup, as well as Icardi and Benedetto: none of them deserve to stay at home.”
And this is the rub. Regardless of whether they deserve it or not, competition is fierce and Higuaín appears to be trying to make up ground with little time remaining. In Sampaoli’s system, there doesn’t appear room in a group of 23 for Agüero, Icardi, Benedetto, Alario and Higuaín. Something has to give and the early indications aren’t good for Pipita.
“With him there is nothing to prove,” Sampaoli offered as assurance. This is certainly true at club level, where Higuaín is a virtual guarantee of goals but there is one question mark. Unfortunately for Higuaín only a place in the World Cup squad, Argentina reaching the final and the centre forward scoring would likely change that now.