As kick off approached, everyone was focussed on the man in the Juventus No9 shirt.
In choosing to leave Napoli for the Bianconeri last summer, Gonzalo Higuain had ensured that he was now a hate figure for supporters who once idolised him.
Higuain’s betrayal shattered the Scudetto dreams of the Stadio San Paolo faithful, and last week saw them given two opportunities to voice their displeasure. They did not disappoint. Thousands of blue whistles were distributed by the club’s Ultras as the first encounter approached, and the cacophony of noise when the Argentinian stepped out to warm up was simply deafening.
Yet after 180 minutes of action, Juventus had secured a 1-1 draw in the league and, despite losing the Coppa Italia semi-final second leg 3-2, ensured their progress to the final 5-4 on aggregate.
Higuain scored twice in that latter encounter because that’s just what he does, his record against his former club now standing at four goals in four games, and after trying not to celebrate any of them, he finally couldn’t help himself.
However, while Napoli owner Aurelio De Laurentiis and Higuain’s brother Nicola ensured the vitriol did not come to an end, the two matches ultimately showcased something far more significant than that duo’s social media spat.
Before the Coppa clash last Wednesday night, Juve boss Max Allegri declared that, “Napoli are a team that play in a similar way to Barcelona,” and looking back across the two matches, it is impossible to escape the feeling the coach used the clashes as a tune-up for Tuesday’s quarter-final.
“On Sunday we weren’t forced to win, so we could approach it a different way,” he explained at a midweek press conference, and while his side were deployed in a usual 4-2-3-1 formation, they played with a different game-plan.
Fielding Mario Mandzukic and Mario Lemina on the flanks, that framework often shifted to a 4-5-1 when possession was lost, Miralem Pjanic also dropping back to ensure the Bianconeri were never outnumbered in midfield. However, Paris Saint-Germain’s collapse at Camp Nou showed the dangers of sitting back and hoping to see out the clock against Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar, the “MSN” frontline blitzing the Ligue 1 outfit to overturn a 4-0 first leg defeat.
Therefore it was encouraging to see Juventus at times pressing their opponents in their own half, particularly after taking the lead.
A key point to note was that on goal kicks, deep free-kicks or throw-ins, the Bianconeri stayed in the Napoli half, with clear instructions not to let their opponents begin building play comfortably from the back.
Napoli boast Serie A’s most prolific attack, yet Dries Mertens was held scoreless for the first time in five games. Claudio Marchisio and Sami Khedira marshalled the central area well, while the team around them diligently, with Juve’s efforts in denying service to their opponents front three particularly impressive.
There is little doubt that the Bianconeri are capable of limiting such a team, and the similarities in the styles of Barcelona and Napoli should not be easily dismissed.
The latter lead Serie A in terms of possession with 58.8 per cent, but while that figure trails the Catalan side’s mark of 62.2 per cent, the Italian club still average 667.5 passes per game. That tally is behind only Bayern’s 719.8 among Europe’s top five leagues, with the Blaugrana averaging 618.7.
That Juventus stepped on the gas in the home leg of the Coppa Italia semi-final was telling – the 3-1 win allowing them to play the return clash with confidence and even lose while still progressing.
Allegri has clearly laid down his blueprint for beating Barcelona, all that remains now is to see if his players can execute it.
If you’re a Rossoneri fan, player or coach – then a flight on Emirates’ AC Milan-themed A380 is just the ticket for you.
Five AC Milan stars: Carlos Bacca, Giacomo Bonaventura, Mattia De Sciglio, Gianluigi Donnarumma and Riccardo Montolivo were present at its recent launch and posed for a selfie in front of the aircraft!
Will the plane help Milan scale new heights on and off the pitch – and qualify for European football this season?
We’ll soon find out but for now the red and blacks are keeping their feet on the ground.
Gonzalo Higuain left Napoli just eight months ago. His exit was a €90 million transfer that upset almost everyone except those connected to Juventus, with the competitive balance of Serie A seemingly dead and buried. It must be remembered that, despite failing to display any kind of form until November, the Bianconeri still ended the campaign nine points clear at the top of the table.
It seems almost unfair that a team already so dominant was adding a player who had just broken Italian football’s single-season scoring tally, his mark of 36 goals in just 35 games breaking a record that had stood since 1950. Was it crushing for a Napoli side who were one of just two teams with a realistic hope of catching the Bianconeri? Unquestionably so.
Higuain has already found the back of the net 23 times in all competitions this term, continuing the deadly form that made him so beloved during his three-year stay under the shadow of Mount Vesuvius. His departure saw a Partenopei hero turn into a hate figure instantly, his No9 shirt burned and draped over dustbins [see Tweet below for a cracking example – Ed] across the southern city.
Napoli fans had worshiped the striker, lifting him onto the same pedestal occupied by his compatriot Diego Maradona who delivered the only two titles in the club’s history. The latter also brought a UEFA Cup triumph during his spectacular stint at the club, but Higuain’s goal scoring last term ignited hopes that the success-starved club could finally be champions once again.
Those dreams left town with the Argentinian, his match-winning goal at Juventus Stadium back in October underlining the gulf that remains between the two teams. Already trailing the Bianconeri by ten points in the league, last month saw the Old Lady take a 3-1 lead from the first leg of their Coppa Italia semi-final. Higuain’s name was on the scoresheet once again.
The return leg of that clash is next week in Naples, but three days earlier comes their second Serie A meeting of 2016/17, with the Stadio San Paolo undoubtedly set to deliver a hostile welcome. Higuain can expect every touch in his first game as a visitor to be jeered and whistled vociferously.
But, while few expect the home side to collect two victories from those games, here’s the deal: wins and losses come and go, cycles don’t last forever. There will come a time when Napoli beat Juventus again and – though it might not be for a quite a few years – even finish above them in the table. There will be a time when the underdog comes out on top, when they win the title once more because everything changes.
That is something both clubs can attest to, each having spent time in the lower divisions in the not-too-recent past. Juve and Napoli returned to Serie A together in 2007, the former recovering from their Calciopoli-induced relegation while the latter was slowly building their way back from being declared bankrupt just three years prior.
Perhaps nothing symbolises their resurgence more than the Higuain transfer, Napoli helping a player of his quality deliver his best football and the Bianconeri able to break their transfer record to add him to their squad.
It was a deal that changed the Serie A landscape, one which should unquestionably have had a profound effect upon both the club he was leaving and the one he opted to join. For Higuain, it was undoubtedly a business decision, the physical manifestation of a “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” philosophy.
He has brought reliability in front of goal to Max Allegri’s side, even if the Coach took a few months to figure out how to use him. Eventually he turned to a 4-2-3-1 formation with Higuain as the spearhead of a system that also found space for Paulo Dybala, Miralem Pjanic, Juan Cuadrado and Mario Mandzukic.
Higuain's goal & assist vs Sassuolo pic.twitter.com/DIpj7BGCIM— Adam Digby (@Adz77) February 15, 2017
Yet while the work rate of the latter duo is often credited as a major reason that Allegri’s tactical shift has been viable, doing so overlooks the efforts of Higuain. His involvement in January’s win over Sassuolo encapsulates it perfectly, starting with an intelligent run and ending in an unerring finish.
That has of course been his true impact on this Juventus team, a guarantee in the penalty area when his team-mates can get Higuain the ball. He is a cold-blooded machine in that regard, one who wastes no movement or even the tiniest amount of energy if he doesn’t sense there is a goal in it for him.
If there is, he becomes unstoppable, like a shark smelling blood in the water, suddenly able to drive past defenders with a burst of pace that appears from nowhere. His second goal in that game shows how he has matured too, willingly pressing a Sassuolo defender into making a mistake, then firing a perfectly weighted ball to Sami Khedira who in turn slots it home.
Higuain did not celebrate the goals that ultimately led to two wins over Napoli, but similarly vital strikes against Fiorentina, Lyon and cross-town rivals Torino have slowly begun to end the notion that he chokes in the biggest matches. It would be reasonable if those doubts do still linger, but a double-header against Napoli followed by a Champions League quarter-final with Barcelona provides the perfect stage to end them once and for all.
As for Napoli, and all they lost when Higuain left, there is a strong argument to be made that the sale has ultimately not affected Maurizio Sarri’s side at all.
The coach has built something special at Napoli, an ensemble cast of performers who play his tune to perfection. Sure, they don’t win with the relentlessness of Juventus – who does? – but they deliver beautiful football, a carefully constructed passing game that changes tempo fluidly and is stunning to watch.
Deploying Dries Mertens in the central role was a masterstroke and has eased the pain of Higuain’s departure. Despite the Belgian winger standing at just 5’7” he was not asked to play as a “false nine,” but instead as an out-and-out centre forward. Leading the line and running behind defenders, he has been a revelation, boasting 25 goals in all competitions as he took to the role instantly.
But back to Higuain. He moved on to be “part of something special.” He didn’t want to take over the team in Turin, he wanted to join them and together they’re becoming a much better side.
Sure, he’s backed up by a squad that strictly speaking doesn’t “need” his help to beat anyone in domestic competition. He’s even probably not going to win top scorer honours because Juventus have too many weapons at their disposal. He’ll probably find his shins bruised by old team-mates and former friends as they look to find ways to stop him over their two meetings this week. An army of his former fans in Naples have hostility toward him. They will never embrace him the same way again.
But, so what?
In the end, those elements will never define either team. Napoli remain an incredible side no matter what the scoreboard says at full time of either game, and Gonzalo Higuain is winning, almost certainly helping Juventus become the first team ever to claim six consecutive Serie A titles.
Everything else – his former club, the city of Naples, Pepe Reina, Jose Callejon and Maurizio Sarri – are in his past and, frankly, none of it really matters.
Well, at least not until the next time he visits the San Paolo…