Top of the table Napoli visit Turin in a Serie A showdown on Saturday evening with the form of two Argentinian hotshots likely to decide the outcome… and the title
Gonzalo Higuain was out presumably to drown his sorrows after Argentina’s Copa America final penalty shootout defeat to Chile. He was back in Europe, and on the party island of Ibiza, arm-in-arm with national team colleague Ezequiel Lavezzi after leaving the legendary Pacha nightclub.
It was the bleary-eyed hours of the morning, with the sun rising, when holidaymakers in Ibiza are generally going to bed and not getting up. Higuain was approached in the street for a photo or an autograph but declined.
“You cannot even score penalties,” the man sniped after being denied his request – provoking an aggressive, even unnecessary response from Higuain. The striker had indeed missed his spot kick in the Santiago shootout – effectively handing the title to Chile – just as he had missed a penalty at 2-2 in the final Serie A game of the season against Lazio which would have qualified Napoli to the Champions League ahead of their opponents.
It all boiled over and Higuain couldn’t control himself; every second of the incident was captured humiliatingly on a smartphone camera. That he would rise to such an infantile jibe showed how much those missed chances were still playing on his mind. He was unable to ignore the taunting.
“Delete the video or I’ll rip off your head,” he barked. It was a pretty undignified way to end a night and, indeed, a season.
Well, if Higuain’s inability to take chances was the reason for Argentina’s failure to win their first Copa since 1993 then his spectacular relaunch this season under coach Maurizio Sarri has put Napoli in with their best chance of winning an Italian league title since the heydey of Naples’s first true Argentinian hero – Diego Maradona.
Higuain, who moved to Campania from Real Madrid in order to emulate the great playmaker, has scored an incredible 24 goals in 24 Serie A games this season. Also leading the race for the European Golden Shoe, he looks set to become the first man to break the 30-goal barrier in the Italian top division since Luca Toni in 2005-06.
“Higuain is enjoying being the main man,” the former Inter striker Diego Forlan wrote in his column for The National this week. “If you go to training as a club’s main goalscorer, in-form and knowing you are going to play matches, that gives you a lift.”
Napoli travel to the Juventus Stadium this Saturday night with their Scudetto credentials on the line. Win and they go five points clear of a Juventus side who have won 14 Serie A matches in a row to go along with their four successive Serie A titles. Lose and they are leapfrogged by Italy’s most in-form team, who are not prone to slipping once in front.
Napoli, naturally, have been trying to play down the significance of this tie but the mere thought of it must be making the hearts of the club’s fans skip a beat. They have not played as important a league match since 1990 despite Higuain’s attempts to pour cold water on it.
“Juventus is not the most important game of the year, it is just one other match in this tournament,” Higuain told reporters following last week’s narrow win over Carpi.
Juventus have risen imposingly up the standings since claiming only 12 points from their first 10 matches. A transitional season looked on the cards with the departures of Arturo Vidal, Carlos Tevez and Andrea Pirlo creating holes in the side that seemingly could not be filled.
The man who took Tevez’s position and Pirlo’s number, however, has done more than anyone to put the Bianconeri right back in contention for the title. Paulo Dybala, the Argentinian signed for €32m from Palermo last summer, is second only to Higuain in the goalscoring standings in Serie A having graduated from under-utilised substitute to most important player in a matter of weeks. The 22-year-old has scored 13 times and registered a further eight assists in only 19 starts after winning over Allegri in the autumn.
“They will be the stars of this match,” former Juventus striker Fabrizio Ravanelli told Goal this week. “They are two magnificent players. Higuain is deadly; a unique striker who sees the goal as well as anyone. He will be a constant danger.”
“Dybala has surprised me a lot in the first part of this season. He has a magic left foot and the numbers speak clearly for themselves: dribbling, wonderful assists for his team-mates, lots of goals and a great ability all across the pitch.”
It’s Italy’s best attack – Napoli have scored 53 times in the league – against Italy’s best defence with Juventus having conceded only once in their nine matches so far in 2016.
However, while Napoli will be at full strength with Higuain, Lorenzo Insigne and Jose Callejon leading the threat, Juventus have been ripped apart by injuries. Sami Khedira and Mario Mandzukic were already ruled out and Martin Caceres and Giorgio Chiellini are the latest casualties.
Their absences mean Allegri is near certain to switch from the 3-5-2 which has brought about the Juventus resurgence to a four-man backline. That change, though, could well be counterbalanced by Napoli’s paltry record in Turin; they have never beaten Juve at their current home and lost 3-1 there last season.
Nonetheless, Napoli will be emboldened by their 2-1 victory over the champions at San Paolo earlier this season – even if it came during Juventus’s crisis at the start of the season. That night, inevitably, Higuain was on target as was Insigne.
It’s one Argentine against another as Serie A’s only two remaining title contenders face off for first place. Fiorentina and Inter have fallen away allowing Napoli – the outsiders who have strung together a club-record eight league wins in a row – and Juve, the relentless juggernaut, to take over. It’s going to be some game in Turin on Saturday evening.