Europa or bust: Only Champions League football can keep Higuain at Napoli

COMMENT: The Azzurri’s weekend loss to Roma means that they must lift this season’s Europa League in order to convince their star man to stay

By Carlo Garganese

If Gonzalo Higuain’s future prior to Napoli’s Easter trip to Roma on Saturday was clouded in uncertainty, it has now become much clearer. For the Argentine to stay, Napoli simply must win the Europa League in order to qualify for next season’s Champions League.

Saturday’s 1-0 defeat to Roma – which was the home side’s first victory within 90 minutes at the Stadio Olimpico since November – means that Rafa Benitez’s men are now eight points adrift of the top three in Serie A.

“I am convinced that if we continue playing like we are then we can still aim for the Champions League,” Benitez told Sky Sport at full time. “I am shocked [to be so far behind]. Our team is growing and plays good football.”

But with only nine games remaining – and with Napoli still active in two other competitions – only the most optimistic fans would back their inconsistent side to make up the difference.

Sadly for the Partenopei faithful, failure to make the Champions League will likely result in the exit of their star striker Higuain. The 27-year-old’s agent and father, Jorge, is due to sit down with president Aurelio De Laurentiis and sporting director Riccardo Bigon at the end of April to discuss his future.

Higuain’s contract runs until 2018 but, while publicly insisting he happy in Naples, the ex-Real Madrid star is not prepared to remain without Champions League football.

The France-born striker has often cut a frustrated figure this season, most notably during Napoli’s exit to Athletic Bilbao in the Champions League play-offs. His return of 13 Serie A goals is good but by no means great for a player of such undoubted quality.

Since the end of January he has scored just once in Serie A, and that reflects as badly on the striker as it does on his team-mates and particularly his coach.

He has been booked three times in his last six starts and directed a number of Cristiano Ronaldo-like tantrums when passes have not arrived at his feet. On Saturday he was substituted with 15 minutes remaining and spent much of that time biting his fingernails on the bench.

This attitude has irritated Benitez, who has publicly pleaded with his star man on a number of occasions this season to “channel his anger better and become a leader.”

The impression is that Higuain believes he deserves to be playing at a higher level than Napoli can offer him. A number of Europe’s top clubs are certain to queue up for his services this summer. Barcelona are in the market for a ‘Plan B’ forward, Paris Saint-Germain are searching for a replacement for Ezequiel Lavezzi, while Liverpool are considering a €50 million bid – although they are also unlikely to make the Champions League.

For Napoli to convince Higuain, they must win the Europa League. The Azzurri face tournament favourites Wolfsburg in a mouth-watering quarter-final next week, but they must improve dramatically if they are to overcome the Germans.

Napoli have won just one of their last eight games in all competitions, while they have taken just two points from a possible 15 in Serie A. A win over Lazio in their Coppa Italia semi-final second leg at the San Paolo will restore some much needed confidence. The tie is delicately poised at 1-1 from the first leg in Rome.

But even if Napoli were to retain the Italian Cup and claim their third trophy in two seasons under Benitez – who is also likely to leave the club when his contract expires in June – that would not be enough to satisfy Higuain.

It’s now Europa League champions or bust.

Liverpool monitoring Napoli's Higuain talks

The Serie A club are keen to tie the Argentina international down to a more lucrative contract when negotiations resume at the end of April, but the Reds are waiting in the wings

By Marco Giordano

Liverpool are keeping tabs on Napoli ace Gonzalo Higuain as the Premier League side step up their search for a new striker.

The 27-year-old has been linked with a move away from Italy at the end of the current season despite the Partenopei’s desire to tie him down to a more lucrative contract.

With key clashes in Serie A, the Europa League and the Coppa Italia coming up in the next few weeks, talks between the Italian club and their star forward have been shelved until the end of April.

However, Higuain’s father, who is also is agent, is due to sit down with club president Aurelio De Laurentiis and Riccardo Bigon, the sporting director, at the end of the month, once the likelihood of Champions League football next season becomes clearer.

The Partenopei are willing to up the Argentine’s basic salary and extend his current deal, which runs until 2018, by a further year.

However, while Higuain and his camp have publicly maintained that he is happy at the San Paolo, it is believed that a summer move would be welcomed.

Liverpool have been keeping a close eye on proceedings and are expected to head up the queue should the former Real Madrid striker become available.

Higuain has been linked with a move to Roma in the Italian press in recent weeks, while reports in both Italy and Spain this week have suggested that Barcelona are in the market for a ‘Plan B’ forward, and that Higuain fits the bill alongside Juventus striker Fernando Llorente.

                                                   * Stats from 2014-15 Serie A season

Any move to Anfield would further complicate the future of Mario Balotelli, who moved back to England from AC Milan in the summer but has struggled to adapt to life under Brendan Rodgers this season.

The Reds boss has hinted on several occasions that the Italy international was not his first-choice signing and has publicly insisted that he improve his workrate and pressing of defenders if he is going to make it on Merseyside.

The 24-year-old has been linked with a move back to Serie A, usually with Sampdoria, since October when he was chastised for swapping shirts with Real Madrid’s Pepe at half-time of their Champions League clash.

A hamstring injury at the end of November hampered his progress further, and by the time he had returned to fitness Rodgers had moved to the 3-4-3 formation which propelled the club into the race for a top-four finish.

Balotelli has appeared to struggle with the new-found system, although he may get another chance to nail down a starting berth given fresh concerns over Daniel Sturridge’s fitness.

However, tentative interest in Higuain highlights that Rodgers is moving ahead with his plans for next season, amid increasing uncertainty over Raheem Sterling’s future, and Balotelli could also be cut adrift.

Higuain delighted with hat-trick against Dinamo

The Argentina international inspired Rafa Benitez’s side to a 3-1 victory at San Paulo, which he says will be vital ahead of the return leg

Napoli striker Gonzalo Higuain was delighted after netting a hat-trick in his side’s 3-1 Europa League victory over Dinamo Moscow.

The Argentina international three inside an hour after Kevin Kuranyi had given the visitors the lead at the San Paulo in the first leg of their last-16 tie.

And the former Real Madrid star says the two-goal advantage will be vital for the return fixture.

“I’m happy for the hat-trick but above all for the win, which we really wanted,” Higuain told the club website.

“It was not easy to beat Dinamo Moscow, who are really tough opponents. We knew that and wanted to get the win at home so we can go to Russia with that extra bit of confidence.

“We could have scored a fourth goal but the important thing was to gain an advantage and after their goal in the first few minutes, it was not easy to bounce back like we did.”

Rafael Benitez also stressed that the tie is not yet finished and urged his side to remain concentrated when they play in the Russian capital.

“We have made an important step forward, but it won’t be easy in Russia,” he said. “We will have to work very hard to qualify.

“Higuain is very important for us, but the whole team played well tonight. All the lads allowed Gonzalo to score three goals this evening.”

Benitez: I am too busy to discuss Napoli future

The Spaniard’s contract expires in May but the former Liverpool boss says he is only focusing on the crucial final three months of the season

Napoli coach Rafael Benitez has once again refused to commit himself to the club beyond the end of the season.

The Spaniard signed a two-year deal when he was named Partenopei boss in May 2013, meaning he has just over three months remaining on his current contract with the Serie A side.

With Benitez having led Napoli to Coppa Italia glory last season and his team currently going well both domestically and in the Europa League, club president Aurelio De Laurentiis wants the 54-year-old to extend his stay at the San Paolo.

Benitez, though, says he is only focusing on a busy run of fixtures and has no intention of discussing a new deal at this point in the campaign.

“I have already said that the most important thing and what really counts is to do our best in the next three months we have to face,” the former Liverpool boss told Radio Kiss Kiss .

“I am busy and focused on continuing our campaign. We have many games in many competitions where we have set objectives to fulfill.

“There will be time to talk about my future. At the moment we are focused only on the Sassuolo clash and to give continuity to our positive run.”

Napoli will have to make do without top scorer Gonzalo Higuain at Sassuolo but Benitez is in no doubt he has sufficient strength in depth to cope with the Argentine striker’s unavailability.

“We have different options and I believe that is good for the team,” he added.

“Manolo Gabbiadini is doing a great job and Jose Callejon as well, as he has scored nine goals so far.  

“Duvan Zapata has always given a great help on the pitch. Marek Hamsik and Jonathan de Guzman have proven they can both make assists and score goals as well, while Dries Mertens is a talented palymaker. 

“We can say with no doubt that we have quality up front and we have a squad which provides us with many alternatives. 

“If that were considered a problem, I would call it a ‘good problem’ because having all of those options is always very positive for any coach.”

Napoli, who routed Trabzonspor 4-0 in the first leg of their Europa League last-32 tie on Thursday, sit third in Serie A, two points ahead of fourth-placed Lazio ahead of their game in hand at Sassuolo.

Higuain: Supercoppa success the turning point in Napoli's season

The Argentine scored a dramatic late winner against Inter but refused to accept any personal plaudits afterwards, insisiting the Partenopei’s resurgence has been a team effort

Gonzalo Higuain identified December’s Supercoppa Italiana success as the turning point of Napoli’s season, after firing his side into the semi-finals of the Coppa Italia on Wednesday night.

The Partenopei’s last-eight encounter with Inter at the San Paolo looked certain to go to extra time but, with just seconds remaining, their Argentine centre-forward lost Andrea Ranocchia on a throw-in before curling home a sublime winner.

Higuain refused to accept any praise for his last-gasp heroics, though, preferring instead to pay tribute to Rafael Benitez’s entire squad for building upon their penalty shootout success over Juventus in the Supercoppa Italiana just before the winter break.

“I want to thank my team-mates and the fans who have supported us,” the striker told Rai Sport.

“The team has worked really well in this last period. We’re all going through a good moment right now and we must continue to take advantage of that. 

“We work well right until the end of every game and I’m sure that tonight’s win is just a consequence of this.

“I must say that we started to improve after the victory in the Supercoppa, as it gave us great confidence for the rest of the season. 

“But we’re not thinking too far ahead, only of Udinese this weekend.”

Napoli have lost just once since their Supercoppa success, coincidentally to Juve in Serie A, and will go into Sunday’s meeting with Udinese at the San Paolo just four points behind second-placed Roma in the standings.

Meanwhile, the reigning Coppa Italia champions will now face Lazio in the last four of this year’s competition.