ALL EYES ON HIGUAIN AS ‘ANGRY’ NAPOLI LIE IN WAIT
Napoli are yet to get over Gonzalo Higuain’s bitter exit to join Serie A champions Juventus. And who can blame them?
The 28-year-old made a €90million move to Turin in July, severely weakening the Partenopei, who were the biggest obstacle to Juve’s fifth straight Scudetto success last season.
Higuain had scored an astonishing 36 Serie A goals, breaking the top-flight record of Gunnar Nordahl, which had stood since 1950, with a tally almost double that of Juve’s Paulo Dybala, second in the scoring charts with 19.
Despite receiving the massive fee, Napoli were far from happy.
Aurelio De Laurentiis said he felt betrayed by Higuain agreeing the move after Juve met a clause in his contract, while the striker claimed it was his sour relationship with the Napoli president which had pushed him into making the switch.
Head coach Maurizio Sarri slammed Higuain for failing to even give him a phone call ahead of the switch and described his bitter emotions, before De Laurentiis released a robust public five-point statement rebutting the Argentina international’s claims.
“I had three good years in Napoli and I understand that they are angry with me,” Higuain said in response.
“I saw the insults, but this is a choice I made for me and I’m happy to have done it.”
Since then, the striker has overcome jibes about his weight after the transfer to score six times in as many league starts, although he is yet to fully hit his stride.
Juve sit top of the table despite losing to Inter and AC Milan at San Siro. Napoli are four points behind, even though they have lost Higuain’s €35m replacement, Arkadiusz Milik, to an ACL injury.
And now we are set for the next chapter, as Napoli visit Turin on Saturday.
Sarri’s side have won two successive games – including Wednesday’s 2-0 victory over the head coach’s former club Empoli – to snap a run of two consecutive losses, while Juve reacted strongly to losing against Milan last week by thrashing Sampdoria 4-1.
Higuain, who might be grateful to be playing at home and not at Stadio San Paolo, could do with a goal, having not netted for his club in four weeks – but Juve are not in the slightest bit concerned.
“There are plenty of examples of players who struggled at first and then exploded into life,” club director and former star Pavel Nedved told Tuttosport.
“We are very happy with Higuain. He is the best striker in the world and we have made a good decision to sign him. Time will prove us right.”
Sarri, meanwhile, told Sky Italia: “I will salute Higuain like he is son who has made his father angry. He did well with me and was always hard-working in training.”
With regular strike partner Dybala out injured, Higuain’s influence will be crucial to the chances of Massimiliano Allegri’s men, who – impressively – have won every league home game they have played since September 2015.
But beyond the focus on the former Real Madrid forward, Juve know a victory would put them seven points clear of last season’s runners-up and represent a significant early step towards making it six consecutive league titles.
THE NUMBERS GAME
– Gonzalo Higuain has been Serie A’s top goalscorer since arriving in Italy ahead of the 2013-14 season. He has a massive 22 more strikes in that period compared to the next best, Inter’s Mauro Icardi.
Serie A goals since 2013-14:
77 – Gonzalo Higuain
55 – Mauro Icardi
48 – Luca Toni
40 – Domenico Berardi
39 – Carlos Tevez
39 – Jose Callejon
– Higuain played in six matches against Juventus while at Napoli, starting in them all. He won two of those games but lost on four occasions, scoring just once.
– Higuain has failed to score in his last three Serie A appearances. The last time he did not score for four consecutive league games was April 2015.
– Despite his recent dip in form, Higuain has the second-best minutes-per-goal rate in this season’s top-flight, with Opta statistics showing Roma’s Edin Dzeko is the only player to have been more efficient.
Minutes per goal in Serie A 2016-17 (minimum of three goals):
80 mins per goal – Edin Dzeko
100 mins – Gonzalo Higuain
105 mins – Arkadiusz Milik
106 mins – Adem Ljajic
109 mins – Ciro Immobile
109 mins – Andrea Belotti
– Juventus have won each of their last five home matches with Napoli in Serie A, scoring 12 goals and conceding one.
– Napoli have won each of the six Serie A matches in which they were ahead this season.
“It just so happens that Gonzalo has not scored for a few games, but I’m calm and happy with what he is doing.
“We must help him, even if he doesn’t score every week. The most important thing is the Scudetto at the end of the season, the Champions League and Coppa Italia.
“It was a choice to leave Napoli. We are all professionals. All things start and end – their fans should be grateful to him for what he did, and him for the affection he received. He is very attached to the city of Naples.”
Higuain’s meeting with his former club dominated Allegri’s pre-match media conference, with the Juve boss backing the striker despite his lack of goals this month.
“We do not have a traditional centre forward available, but we will have to make do with the options we have.
“When you bear in mind that we lost our top scorer Higuain, and then his replacement Milik to injury, and Manolo Gabbiadini to suspension, we did quite well to win against Empoli.
“We should stop letting this false pressure be piled on to us because everyone knows what our place is in the league. Before the season even began, we lost the top scorer in the history of Serie A – it was an enormous risk that could have lost us a lot of points.”
Sarri has been impressed by Napoli’s response to adversity, but attempted to lower expectations that they can compete for the title having sold Higuain.
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