Napoli are only half a team without Gonzalo Higuain in attack, according to former midfielder Salvatore Bagni.
The Argentina international has scored 30 goals in 31 Serie A appearances in his most productive season to date, helping to fire Napoli into Scudetto contention.
Higuain’s furious reaction to a dismissal in the 3-1 loss to Udinese saw him slapped with a four-game ban – though this was reduced to three on appeal – meaning he will sit out Saturday’s crucial encounter with Inter at San Siro.
And Bagni, who enjoyed spells with both clubs during the 1980s, believes the loss of Napoli’s number nine will hurt them over the coming matches.
“With all due respect to [Manolo] Gabbiadini, who would play in any side, Pipita is 50 per cent of the team,” he told La Gazzetta dello Sport. “With his play, he has often resolved many complicated games.
“He is unique, he knows how to score goals, he assists, takes part in the build-up. I don’t think there is an equal striker like him in the world.”
Assessing Higuain’s punishment, he continued: “Four games was excessive, but also three I consider to be exaggerated. They did not take into account the fair play of the lad, who has never been sent off and always had the correct attitude on the field.
“The reaction of Udinese was the source of it, in my opinion, because he was nervous and tense for the way they had started the game. In those moments he may have thought that defeat would have prevented them from fighting to the end for the Scudetto.”
Higuain has been linked with a move away from Napoli at the end of the season, with Chelsea reported to be keen admirers, but Bagni does not believe he will be sold unless a club matches his buy-out clause – reported to be worth €94million.
When asked if he backs Higuain to stay, Bagni said: “I think so. [President Aurelio] De Laurentiis will not entertain any discounts on his buy-out clause. There are only a few foreign clubs who can afford to pay that much.
“Now, it’s up to the president to meet the demands of Pipita asking for higher wages. Do not forget that the next will be his last contract of a certain size.”