Higuain joining Chelsea will finally end Hazard’s false nine frustration

For the second January in a row, Chelsea find themselves at the centre of a striker merry-go-round. They want Gonzalo Higuain. He’s at AC Milan, on loan from Juventus, where he was pushed out to make room for Cristiano Ronaldo.

Higuain is having a bad season at San Siro and has scored only once in Serie A since October, with that goal coming against SPAL on December 29.

But there remains the tantalising potential of a link-up with Maurizio Sarri at Chelsea, the coach with whom Higuain arguably made his reputation during a record-breaking season with Napoli in 2015-16.

The Blues have reached an agreement with the player, Juventus and AC Milan – no mean feat – but there are further complications.

Indeed, Chelsea have got to clear space in their squad as well as their wage bill. To that effect, they are in the process of punting Alvaro Morata to Atletico Madrid for the rest of the season on loan.

Atleti don’t want to pay for a permanent deal right now and a fee could be settled instead for summer. Neither will Atleti be paying all of the Spain international’s wages if they can help it.

Michy Batshuayi, meanwhile, has been sent back from a difficult loan spell at Valencia. Sarri has not brought the Belgian back to play up front but in the hope of drumming up some cash in the form of a permanent sale.

It’s hoped he will go and join Michael Emenalo and Cesc Fabregas at Monaco but the fee that Chelsea are looking for is proving to be prohibitive.

In short, it’s a mess.

Morata has had numerous opportunities to prove himself at Stamford Bridge and blown most of them. He is not up to leading the line for a Sarri team and is suffering a crisis of confidence in front of goal.

He did not have the full trust of Antonio Conte either, who dipped into the market last year to sign Olivier Giroud.

Alvaro Morata Olivier Giroud Chelsea

While Giroud has been relatively popular with the Chelsea fans, and brought good football from Eden Hazard when they’ve played together, he has not wholly convinced Sarri of his merits.

Last year, Diego Costa was shipped out to Atletico, while Batshuayi was booted to Borussia Dortmund. It’s been a revolving door in the Chelsea striker department and despite the money spent and the deals done, none has been up to scratch.

That’s why Sarri has taken the unusual step of playing Hazard up front this season. The Belgium captain famously did not like playing there under Conte and would hardly have been thrilled to go there under the new coach either.

It has worked for the team, however, and Sarri, in public at least, believes that Chelsea have a better defensive shape when Hazard plays from the front.

Sarri has form of playing a little man up top, having successfully converted Hazard’s Belgium team-mate Dries Mertens into a ‘false nine’ at Napoli following the departure of Higuain for Juventus.

Arkadiusz Milik was brought in as an expensive replacement. A cruciate knee ligament injury put paid to the Pole’s season early on, however, and so Sarri had to go look for solutions within the squad.

Mertens worked. He is one of the most intelligent strikers in world football according to those who know him well.

However, while Mertens and Hazard might be similar heights and share the same nationality, they are very different players.

Eden Hazard Chelsea PS

Mertens is content to wait for his moment to pounce and many of his goals owe a lot to his movement, his anticipation and feature only one or two touches.

Hazard is a natural playmaker. He wants the ball all of the time. Whether he’s dribbling, playing one-twos or looking for a through-ball, Hazard demands involvement. And his teams generally benefit from his ability to run a game.

While he might well do a job for the team up front, it takes a lot away from the side as a whole to isolate him up there. It removes his one-on-one ability and, with that, goes Chelsea’s chances of tilting the numbers game in their favour.

It removes what is described in Spanish as “la pausa”. That is the intelligence to slow the game down until the moment is exactly right to play the pass.

Few players master this trick and if they do, they are world class. Hazard has it but it’s rendered useless if he is not running the game from behind the front man.

Higuain AC Milan PS

But Chelsea’s mess in the market has led them to this point. It is frustrating for Sarri that his best playmaker is also his best striker. And currently he feels he can compensate better for his absence in midfield than up front.

Higuain’s transfer cannot come soon enough. He is a better bet than either Morata or Giroud. He is not as unselfish as Giroud but is more clinical than Morata.

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He has thrived before in the presence of creative, quick attackers such as Jose Callejon and Paulo Dybala. Chelsea have those kind of players.

What his signing will do is deliver the twin benefit of an upgrade in the No.9 position and relief for Hazard because he won’t have to play centrally any longer and can revert to his best position.

For a Chelsea side short of goals, relatively speaking at least, it should be enough for them to establish themselves as at least the third best team in the Premier League.

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Chelsea closing in on Higuain as agreement reached with Juventus

Chelsea have reached an agreement with Juventus over the January transfer of Gonzalo Higuain, Goal understands, with the Argentine’s loan deal with AC Milan set to be cut short.

The deal will see the Blues handed an option to buy the striker outright for £32.5 million (€36m) upon the completion of a six-month loan, with a series of performance related bonuses being paid to Juventus on the basis of goals scored and appearances.

Higuain and Chelsea boss Maurizio Sarri have been pushing for a reunion since the Italian took the reins at Stamford Bridge and it appears now that the pair will finally get their wish after talks between the Premier League side and the Serie A champions.

The 31-year-old was left on the bench for Milan’s Supercoppa Italiana loss to Juventus on Wednesday evening in Saudi Arabia, with Rossoneri boss Gennaro Gattuso attributing a fever to the forward’s absence from the starting eleven.

Higuain had earlier missed a photo opportunity to receive treatment as talks continued behind the scenes, Milan director Leonardo having stayed in Italy to work on the San Siro side’s transfer matters – Genoa’s Krzysztof Piatek is the club’s main target to replace the outgoing Higuain.

But while the Argentine’s move to London is all but finalised, the deal will be paused until Alvaro Morata’s future is solidified, as talks over a move away from Chelsea continue.

Atletico Madrid remain at the head of the pack for the Spaniard’s signature as Sevilla have pulled out of the race, but have yet to come to an agreement over the cost of a proposed loan arrangement, with an option to buy and wage contributions still being thrashed out.

Chelsea are also looking to offload Michy Batshuayi – valued at £40m ($51m) – on a permanent basis, though the most interested party, Monaco, had been hoping only to secure the Belgian’s services on loan.

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Monaco have agreed a deal to take over Batshuayi’s loan spell with Valencia , but his parent club are exploring their options and have offered the striker to a variety of clubs, with Everton interested in a move for the 25-year-old.

The Toffees’ valuation of Batshuayi falls well short of Chelsea’s asking price, however, as the Merseyside club look to sign their man for around £18m ($23m).

Chelsea are also looking to sign a replacement for Cesc Fabregas, now at Monaco, and are locked in talks with Zenit for Leandro Paredes for what might be their only other incoming signing in January.

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Higuain’s Supercoppa benching due to virus, says Milan boss Gattuso

Gennaro Gattuso insists Gonzalo Higuain started AC Milan’s Supercoppa Italiana defeat to Juventus on the bench due to a fever, as speculation on the striker’s future continues to mount.

Higuain has been tipped to link up with his former Napoli boss Maurizio Sarri at Chelsea during the transfer window.

Those rumours were exacerbated when he did not partake in a team photo with Saudi prince Abdulaziz bin Turki Al-Faisal ahead of the Supercoppa contest in Jeddah, which Juve won 1-0 thanks to Cristiano Ronaldo’s header.

Argentina striker Higuain came off the bench with just under 20 minutes remaining and Milan head coach Gattuso is adamant that illness, and not a potential departure, was behind his thinking.

“He’s unlucky at the moment. He had a fever last night,” Gattuso told Rai Sport. 

“We did everything to get him better, but he didn’t play much, so I preferred a fresher player.

“It might seem like a joke, but honestly, it’s true. Higuain wasn’t in the picture when the Saudi Prince came to visit because I was afraid the virus would spread among the other players, so that was my decision.”

Pressed on the issue, Gattuso added: “I’ve got a burning inside me, we have 25 players, so let’s not talk about this now.

“We lick our wounds and will see what happens tomorrow.”

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On the match itself, which saw Milan finish with 10 men following a red card for Franck Kessie, Gattuso felt his team battled well.

“The team showed character and fought hard against a great opponent,” he said. 

“The performance remains, but there are always regrets when losing a final.”

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Higuain too old at 31?! Why ageist Chelsea won’t do any better than AC Milan star

Before selling Cristiano Ronaldo to Juventus, the biggest mistake Real Madrid president Florentino Perez had ever made in the transfer market was allowing Claude Makelele to join Chelsea.

In the summer of 2003, the French defensive midfielder was seeking a pay rise that still would have only seen him earn half as much as his compatriot, Zinedine Zidane.

In an embarrassing show of ignorance, Perez utterly dismissed the merits of a player who was integral to how Real were playing at the time and deemed Chelsea’s offer of £16.8 million for a 30-year-old far too good to turn down.

“He wasn’t a header of the ball and he rarely passed the ball more than three metres,” the Santiago Bernabeu supremo smugly reasoned. “Younger players will arrive who will cause Makelele to be forgotten.”

The stupidity of the sale has never been forgotten, though, at least not in Madrid. 

Bizarrely, it seems they have shorter memories at Chelsea, with whom Makelele won two Premier League titles, two League Cups and one FA Cup during six successful seasons at Stamford Bridge. 

How else to explain the Blues’ ageist and self-defeating policy of nothing more than one-year deals for players aged 30 or over?

Chelsea boss Maurizio Sarri has already publicly admitted he would scrap the restrictive stance if he could, given it has caused consternation with several members of his squad seeking contract extensions, including Willian, David Luiz and Cesc Fabregas, who has just departed for Monaco, leaving the Blues without a back-up for playmaker Jorginho.

More importantly, the west London club’s reluctance to invest in players the wrong side of 30 is also frustrating the manager’s attempts to add some badly-needed firepower to his team, in the shape of Gonzalo Higuain. 

The Argentine turned 31 last month and, as well as being put off by the complexities of negotiating a deal with two clubs – Juventus own Higuain but he joined AC Milan last summer on loan for €18M (£16m/$20m) with a view to a permanent transfer for €36m (£32m/$40m) – his age is clearly an issue for Chelsea. 

Their caution is understandable, of course. Higuain’s very best years may well be behind him. Furthermore, in England, he is primarily known as a mentally fragile player who misses big chances in big games (a.k.a. the reason why Messi has never won a major international tournament).

Such a reductive appraisal does Higuain a great disservice. We are talking about one of the most prolific strikers of the past decade.

Gonzalo Higuain Serie A Top Scorers PS

Indeed, since he first arrived in Europe in 2006, only Lionel Messi (369), Cristiano Ronaldo (343) and Edinson Cavani (232) have scored more goals than Higuain (214) across Europe’s ‘Big Five’ leagues.

He has proven himself even more prolific than compatriot Manchester City’s Sergio Aguero (202), who joined Atletico Madrid at the same time that Higuain linked up with Real. 

Higuain may be 31 but there really isn’t any other striker on the market with such a pedigree, as underlined by Real Madrid and Barcelona’s struggles in finding a new forward.

Frustrated by the fees being asked for even Genoa’s half-season wonder Krzysztof Piatek, the European champions have simply given up the chase, while their Catalan rivals have postponed the search for a Luis Suarez successor, and instead settled on an understudy, with Cristhian Stuani the leading candidate. 

The latter may be 32 but he is in form and affordable, thus making him the best option for Barca. The same goes for Chelsea with Higuain. 

In a winter window highlighting a dearth of promising young strikers, a forward with Higuain’s recent record (the top scorer in Serie A since touching down in Italy in 2015) represents an excellent option.

However, it is not really about whether the stats suggest that Higuain is the right man for Chelsea. The point is that manager Sarri believes that Higuain is the right man for Chelsea.

And, if Chelsea believe that Sarri is the man to create a stylish and successful side at Stamford Bridge, then they must back him in the transfer market, particularly when it comes to addressing their biggest failing at the moment.

Alvaro Morata has failed dismally to score regularly in the Premier League, thus jeopardising Chelsea’s hopes of a return to the Champions League and only strengthening the belief he is not mentally strong enough to be the leading man at a major club.

Of course, some will argue that Higuain suffers from the same syndrome. But nobody knows better than Sarri how to get the very best out of an equally complicated character. 

Gonzalo Higuain Maurizio Sarri PS

Higuain has long been known as an awkward player to manage. Even his agent and brother Nicolas has acknowledged that the forward is “introverted”.

Therefore, it was a bold move by Sarri to tell Higuain on the first day of Napoli’s pre-season training camp at Dimaro in 2015 that he was only playing at “70 per cent” of his potential.

“You’re too lazy,” the straight-talking, chain-smoking Tuscan declared. “If you don’t change your attitude, you won’t become the best centre-forward in the world.”

Higuain responded by changing his diet, losing four kilograms (eight pounds) and scoring 36 times in 2015-16, thus breaking the goals record for a single Serie A season.

It was a stunning achievement but Sarri wasn’t surprised. 

“If he doesn’t win the Ballon d’Or in the future, then it’ll be all his fault,” he reasoned. “He’d be a right ****head.” 

The Ballon d’Or looks unlikely to happen at this stage but not because Higuain is not a bad guy, as Sarri well knows.

Gonzalo Higuain Maurizio Sarri PS

“Up until now, he has projected an image which isn’t in line with his character,” he argued. “He’s not only the best striker in the world, he’s also a man with genuine feelings.

“Gonzalo can be a bit sensitive and it shows. But it’s enough to strike the right chord with him.”

Sarri clearly failed to do that with Morata but he would clearly have no such issues with Higuain, who has previously praised the Italian for providing him with “peace of mind”.

It is not in the least bit surprising, then, that he is so keen on a reunion with Sarri after being shunted out of Juventus by the arrival of Ronaldo and then being left bitterly frustrated by Milan’s maddeningly fluctuating form.

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Sarri, for his part, would be getting a striker that he has the utmost faith in, one capable of providing the goals that Chelsea need to secure a top-four finish. In that sense, Higuain would be worth the investment. 

His age may be an understandable concern. But countless thirty-somethings have proven inspired signings in the past: from Makelele and Gianfranco Zola at Chelsea to Higuain’s fellow Argentine attackers Gabriel Batistuta and Diego Milito, at Roma and Inter, respectively.

To paraphrase the old adage, if you’re good enough, you’re young enough. As Florentino Perez has now twice found to his considerable cost.

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Gattuso: Chelsea target Higuain has not asked to leave Milan

Gennaro Gattuso insists Gonzalo Higuain has not asked to leave AC Milan but would not feel let down if the striker did move elsewhere.

Higuain joined Milan on loan from Juventus in August for a fee of €18 million with an option to buy him outright at the end of the season.

However, the move has not panned out as expected, with Higuain scoring only six times in 15 Serie A appearances for Gattuso’s men.

He ended a run of nine games without a goal, which featured a missed penalty and a red card against Juve in November, last month but has been heavily linked with a reunion with Maurizio Sarri at Chelsea.

There have been reports Higuain could be dropped for Wednesday’s Supercoppa Italiana clash with Juve ahead of a move to Stamford Bridge.

But Gattuso told a media conference: “At this moment, I have to repeat the same words: there are many rumours, but Higuain is training well, working with everyone just fine and is at our disposal.

“We’ll see tomorrow whether he plays or not. He has to decide what to do, how to resolve this issue, but right now he is training with great professionalism. We’ll see.

“If he plays, it’s because I see him in good shape and relaxed. 

“I agree that after the missed penalty and red card against Juventus, something happened in his head.

“We’ll see tomorrow. As I said, it’s not easy for a coach to change the idea of a player, so I have to concentrate on putting out the best line-up for the situation and getting the best out of every player.

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“I want to reiterate that Higuain has never told me he wants to leave. I am waiting for that.

“I am not upset. I too was a player for many years, I realise there are moments when we all see things differently and cannot judge how someone else thinks.

“If the glass is half-full or half-empty, it remains the same glass. We’ll see what happens. I want to see this Supercoppa, I hope it is a great game for us, but I won’t be upset or let down if he goes.”

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