Gonzalo Higuain is part of a very exclusive club; a team-mate of the two greatest players of the modern era in Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. Not many others can say that. However it means he has to fight very hard to escape their shadows.
“With Messi and Ronaldo everybody is unlucky,” Alessandro Del Piero told Goal in his role as ambassador for the UEFA Champions League Trophy Tour Presented by Heineken . “Two icons, two incredible players, two champions. They score almost every game. It’s something crazy.”
There was a piece of commentary going around last week when Argentina lost 6-1 to Spain. Higuain had missed a very decent chance during the first half that could have prevented Spain from streaking so far clear.
“Higuain with his club is thinking about scoring, with Argentina he’s thinking about not becoming a meme,” the commentator said.
It would be no exaggeration to say that Higuain takes more flak than most for Argentina and that criticism is magnified because he has always played alongside Messi.
Higuain is routinely cited as the reason Messi has no significant international titles to his name, the 2008 Olympic gold medal aside.
If Higuain had scored his one decent chance in the World Cup final in 2014 then it is reckoned Messi could well have put to bed any comparisons with Diego Maradona as the greatest Argentine and the greatest player of all time.
Had he finished a chance in the 2015 Copa America final after great work from the No.10 then at least Messi would have pocketed a continental title at the very least. To add insult to injury he missed a penalty in the shootout.
In national team colours Higuain is the fall guy. And he suffers. Messi can make any player compared to him look ordinary. It doesn’t help when the player in question misses the big chances that could further enhance Messi’s reputation.
To enhance Cristiano Ronaldo’s reputation – and his goal tally – were the main reasons Higuain was picked during his time at Real Madrid. In the past decade a centre forward like Higuain – or Karim Benzema for that matter – has not been in the Madrid team as a finisher or to get goals for himself, but to facilitate Ronaldo.
The Portugal captain was reportedly content to see Higuain depart Real Madrid when the forward was sold to Napoli in 2013.
Signed by president Ramon Calderon, the club president who took him from River Plate in 2007, Higuain looked an odd man out after Benzema arrived under the reinstalled Florentino Perez in 2009 and Ronaldo took centre stage.
In a sense the Frenchman was signed to replace Higuain, whose goalscoring numbers at Santiago Bernabeu were enviable. But maybe that was the point.
A focal point like Ronaldo does not want a striker who needs service with crosses and assists. Ronaldo instead needs a provider who occupies the central area.
Ronaldo accepts no rivals to his goalscoring mantle. Higuain is a complete No.9; a striker who demands service and thrives on goals. Benzema facilitates the work of Ronaldo a lot more diligently and that is probably the reason he has been retained up to now.
Benzema recently crowned his 400th Real Madrid appearance with a goal but his scoring output is far beneath Higuain’s. Maybe that was the problem.
“You can compare [Higuain] to Ronaldo now because he changed the position on the field with Zidane especially,” said Del Piero. “He’s become an amazing striker.”
Benzema has suffered plenty of criticism for his part in this Real Madrid season. This has been a campaign in which Madrid have been beneath their best and when on numerous occasions they have played without Ronaldo in the lineup.
At 33 he appears to have accepted he cannot play every game and so the chief goalscoring threat falls to Benzema. Under that kind of spotlight, he has occasionally frozen.
Coach Zinedine Zidane counts Benzema as one of his favourites however and has stuck steadfastly by him. But in a season in which Madrid have had to vary their play and become less reliant on Ronaldo then maybe Higuain would have been a better bet to lead the line.
Higuain became the main man at Napoli during his three seasons there before joining Juventus for a €94 million fee in 2016. He could never have done that at Madrid. In San Paolo as in Turin, there is no Ronaldo demanding service. He is the threat and rightly seen by Juve as the solution to their ills in European competition. Higuain was summoned to be the difference maker, to elevate them above opponents in close matches.
“Everybody has their own history and has to write the story on their own,” said Del Piero. “So, Gonzalo has the opportunity this year to do it.
“He’s doing it with Juve. He’s playing well, not only goals, so he’s in a good moment. I think he will reach the top of the level in the right moment this season.”
He did exactly that against Tottenham Hotspur in the last round, netting two goals in the first leg and claiming a goal and assist in the second. He knows what is expected of him and he can deliver.