The narrative that Gonzalo Higuaín is not a ‘big-game player’ has existed for quite some time. There’s something self-fulfilling about it: the label comes out, and Higuaín misses a crucial chance to justify it. But, on Wednesday night, the Argentine hitman set about putting the record straight.
The Italian league leaders, with their back line of Gianluigi Buffon, Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini, brought organisation, commitment and intelligence. The French league leaders, with the aerial threat of Falcao, the pace and movement of Kylian Mbappé, and the silky footwork of Bernardo Silva and Thomas Lemar, brought an abundant goal threat.
However, the reality wasn’t so black and white.
Juventus, for all their domineering defensive fortitude, also possess a productive attacking game. They make excellent use of their rampaging, classically modern full-backs Dani Alves and Alex Sandro, the playmaking quality of Miralem Pjanić and the twinkling toes of Paulo Dybala. But Higuaín is their focal point, the sharp edge of a smooth machine.
And the 29-year-old showed the full extent of his clinical finishing against Monaco.
On 28 minutes, he gathered the ball just inside the opposition half, turned, and fed Alves with a perfectly waited pass. He then trundled – because Higuaín honestly does not hurtle – towards the penalty box with trademark menace to get on the end of his team-mates return pass, slotting home with aplomb.
Then, with the hour-mark approaching, he peeled off his marker and demanded Alves to cross to him at the far post. The Brazilian did as he was told, sending a delightful ball in for the striker to slide in to the back of the net.
There is a chance that, if and when the Bianconeri do reach the final, they will meet the centre-forward’s old team: Real Madrid. Such a clash would present the player with the perfect opportunity to prove his naysayers wrong, to utterly dissolve the ‘not-a-big-game-player’ label. But, in truth, the label already looks a little worn.
Higuaín has fluffed his lines at key moments on football’s highest echelons. He missed an early chance in the 2014 World Cup final as Argentina lost to Germany, then did the same near the end of his country’s 2015 Copa America final defeat to Chile.
In the latter game, he also missed his spot-kick in the penalty shootout. And he fired over another crucial penalty while at Napoli.
On the last day of the 2014/15 season, with his side one goal away from a sensational turnaround from 2-0 down to 3-2 up, he blazed a spot-kick over the bar. As a result he failed to complete his hat-trick. Napoli, meanwhile, missed out on the Champions League, going on to lose 4-2.
Case for the defence
However, just as Higuaín spurned a good chance in the 2014 World Cup final, without him there is a chance Argentina wouldn’t have even got to the final. It was his superb strike against Belgium that took his country through to the semi-finals of that tournament.
And, while he missed a good chance in the 2015 Copa America final, it’s worth noting he scored two goals in the competition despite starting just once. In addition, in the next year’s Copa America Centenario he hit four goals – all of which came in the knockout stages – to help his country to another final.
In fact, internationally Higuaín has a better strike rate than his more illustrious striking peers. Carlos Tevez averages 0.2 goals per game for Argentina and Sergio Agüero 0.4 per game. With 31 goals in 68 caps, Higuaín’s stands at 0.5 per game.
As for the underwhelming end to his 2014/15 campaign with Napoli, prior to that penalty miss he had had a direct hand in over 35 per cent of his team’s league goals that season. He would only improve upon that record in the following term.
Weight of expectation
Under the auspices of Maurizio Sarri, Higuaín’s scoring went to another level. The Napoli coach was unapologetically, almost offensively, enthusiastic about his expectations of the player, saying: “If Higuaín doesn’t win the Ballon d’Or, he’s a d***head.”
No pressure there, then.
But Higuaín did his utmost to live up to his manager’s high standards, hitting a sensational 36 goals in 35 league games, breaking a Serie A record for goals in a single season that had stood for 66 years since Gunnar Nordahl hit 35 for AC Milan in 1950.
That form led to a controversial move to Juventus, who paid an extravagant €90million transfer fee to make him the most expensive player ever signed by an Italian club. He had broken similar records before. In 2013 he became Napoli’s most expensive ever signature, arriving for a €37million fee.
Yet the huge fees paid to sign him have never appeared to burden Higuaín, who has always played with a ferocious intensity bordering on outright anger. His scoring record has been consistently outstanding. In the ten-and-a-half years he has spent in European football, he has broken into double figures for goals nine times.
Despite the scepticism over the deal Juventus struck to add him to their ranks, he has continued to find the net on a frequent basis. In 44 appearances across all competitions in his debut season, he has scored 31 goals. Four of them came against his former club.
His first appearance against Napoli came last October; he scored a 70th-minute winner. And, on his first return to the Stadio San Paolo, where he was welcomed back with predictable hostility, he scored two goals to ensure his current team reached the Coppa Italia final at the expense of his old one.
If that isn’t the form of a ‘big-game player’, perhaps the term needs redefining.
Regardless, to reduce a player to specific moments in specific games is unfair. The holistic picture is more important, particularly in the case of Higuaín. Without his goals, perhaps those ‘big games’ aren’t quite so big in the first place.
He has averaged one in two Champions League games to lead Juventus to the precipice of a final. He has hit three in three to help them into the domestic cup final. And his record of 23 in 34 league games has aided his side in their quest to be the first to win six successive Scudetti.
Not only are his goals both frequent and vital but his all-round performance puts him among the best No.9s on the continent.
Per 90 minutes played, he scores more goals than Aguero while attempting fewer shots. He completes more passes and creates more chances than Robert Lewandowksi. He wins more aerial duels and beats his man more often than Luis Suárez and Karim Benzema.
With every passing week, the old label becomes less and less relevant. Higuaín is a big-game player. He’s also so much more.