Time for Higuain to stand up and be counted

Adam Digby 3/05/2017
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Higuain is hoping to steer Juve into the Champions League final.

Heading towards his 40th birthday, Gianluigi Buffon may never have a better chance to lift club football’s most prestigious trophy; his only European triumph a UEFA Cup with Parma in 1999, six months after Monaco’s Kylian Mbappe was born.

Yet if the French striker and Italian goalkeeper arrive for this clash at opposite ends of their careers, where does that leave Gonzalo Higuain? The Argentine is, at 29, still relatively young, but has enjoyed a long, fruitful career. He launched his name to prominence back in 2006, netting two goals for River Plate against rivals Boca Juniors and was quickly snapped up by Real Madrid a few months later.

In the Spanish capital he scored goals at a spectacular rate, 107 in 190 La Liga appearances helping Los Blancos win three league titles plus a Copa del Rey. However, it was during his time at the Bernabeu his accomplishments began to be punctuated with a “yeah, but…”

He was unquestionably one of the deadliest strikers around, but saying so, was switfyly followed by the familiar retort. “Yeah, but he only scored eight goals in 48 Champions League appearances for Madrid,” was one of the early examples, his lack of impact cited as a reason Real never sealed European glory during his time there.

The summer of 2013 saw him on the move again, to Napoli, where he became even more prolific. A staggering 91 goals in just three seasons included a Serie A single-season record of 36 last term, a return that broke a previous best which had stood unchallenged since the 1949/50 campaign.

But aside from a single Coppa Italia, his deadly prowess in front of goal did not translate into silverware. During this time he would squander vital chances internationally too, the 2014 World Cup and 2015 Copa America finals adding to the list of big games where Higuain failed to deliver. Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero and Angel Di Maria also failed to score in those games, “yeah, but…” it was misses from Higuain that cost Argentina.

Higuain in the Champions League this season

  • Games: 9
  • Goals: 3
  • Assists: 0

His move to Juventus ensured he became a hate figure in Naples. Diego Maradona lambasted his decision, “Yeah, but I would never have done that”.

Higuain responded the only way he knows how. Less than eight months have passed since his club record €90 million transfer to the Turin giants, yet he already has 29 goals to his name in all competitions. You know what’s coming. “Yeah, but…” none have been in the Champions League knockouts. Domestically he has been sensational, but Higuain’s three goals in Europe came against Dinamo Zagreb (2) and Lyon in the group stage.

But now the season is getting serious. Roma’s loss to Lazio at the weekend brought the Bianconeri to the precipice of their sixth-consecutive Serie A title, while they are also in the Coppa Italia final again.

“Yeah, but…” Juve were winning those competitions without Higuain. It may be harsh but the perceived success or failure of that transfer will be judged solely on whether or not he helps deliver Champions League glory.

It has been 21 years since “Ol’ Big Ears” was lifted by the Old Lady, and with the depth and quality of her current squad, there will arguably never be a better time to end that agonising wait. Buffon deserves it, the club’s supporters eagerly anticipate it.

The new No9 won the penalty that ultimately decided the last-16 clash with Porto, but it was compatriot Paulo Dybala who was the star as Barcelona were eliminated. However, with two games against Monaco and potentially a final to follow, there is time to rewrite the narrative. If he can score decisive goals, his reputation as a player who shrinks in the biggest moments could finally be dismissed.

A Juventus Champions League win? “Yeah, but they couldn’t do it without Gonzalo Higuain…”

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Manager microscope - Zidane v Simeone

Alex Rea 3/05/2017
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Cristiano Ronaldo proved Atletico Madrid’s Champions League dream destroyer once more with a hat-trick as Real Madrid took a commanding 3-0 semi-final, first leg lead.

Ronaldo extended his lead as the all-time top scorer in Madrid derby matches by taking his tally to 21 and put Real firmly on course to defend their title in the final in Cardiff on June 3.

But while Ronaldo will no doubt dominate the column inches, we take a look at how Zinedine Zidane and Diego Simeone’s night fared.

Basic Stats

Real Madrid

Shots – 17

Shots on target –  7

Pass success – 89%

Aerial duel Success – 70%

Dribbles won – 16

Tackles – 19

Possession – 62%

Atletico Madrid

Shots – 4

Shots on target – 1

Pass success – 82%

Aerial Duel Success – 30%

Dribbles won – 5

Tackles – 28

Possession – 38%

Tactics

Zidane

Isco was handed a recall and Zidane cleverly gave him a free role – a far cry from Gareth Bale’s rigidity on the left.

The Spaniard was floating in between the lines, picking up excellent positions and perpetually looked for the killer ball in behind. Oh, and he literally didn’t misplace one pass in the first-half.

Another tactical masterstroke from the Real boss came when he actually took Isco off and introduced Marco Asensio. His pace and direct running on the left really stretched Atletico, a perfect example of that being in his role for Ronaldo’s second goal.

Simeone

A defensive disaster for Simeone. First, Lucas Hernandez at right-back was a calamitous decision.

Injuries have left Atletico short of options but moving a natural centre-back, who is also primarily left-footed, to right-back was unwise at best.

Marcelo and Ronaldo absolutely terrorised Hernandez and in the first-half alone he missed three tackles and committed three fouls.

The right-footed Stefan Savic should have been the man to move right but it doesn’t end there for Simeone.

His substitutions were poor, not necessarily in terms of personnel but the timing. Simeone had played his hand before the 70th minute with a double substitution coming on the hour and it killed their intensity and left him short of options late on.

Touchline presence

Zidane

The Frenchman probably doesn’t get the respect he deserves because he remains as cool as ice throughout. Typically, there was no wild gesticulations and he was the touchline image of his side – cold blooded.

Simeone

Simeone cut an incredibly irate figure but it wasn’t enough to stir his men into life. A limp performance from Atletico will have him feeling disappointed rather than angry.

Our verdict

Zidane

Isco in the diamond proved to be a genius move. His substitutions were perfect and the night could not have gone any better for the Real boss.

9/10

Simeone

Atletico looked satisfied to be one down and they didn’t test the hosts whatsoever. They lost confidence when Real scored again and Simeone isn’t one known for his ability to chase down games.

4/10

Your verdict

Zidane

Simeone

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Real Madrid vs Atletico Madrid: Three things we missed

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In a stunning result, Real Madrid romped to a 3-0 win over Atletico Madrid to take control of their Champions League semi-final tie.

Games between the two city rivals have usually been closely-contested in recent times, but Los Blancos absolutely dominated this one, with Cristiano Ronaldo netting a hat-trick.

Here are three things you may have missed from the semi-final first leg.

REAL MADRID’S RAUCOUS WELCOME TO THE BERNABEU

Given that this was a Madrid derby, there’s no surprise that fans were out on the streets ahead of the game. But even with that in mind, the welcome that the Real Madrid side got as they approached their stadium was special.

The team bus slowed to a crawl as Los Blancos fans gave their players a rousing entrance ahead of the game.

If the Madrid players weren’t already in high spirits, the show put on by their fans would certainly have done the trick.

ANTOINE GRIEZMANN

He was, in fact, on the pitch, although you’d be forgiven for thinking he wasn’t.

The Atletico Madrid player put in a subdued performance, with the Real Madrid defence completely nullifying the threat Griezmann posed.

The only time Griezmann had an impact was when he tracked back late in the game to prevent Marco Asensio from getting into the box but, going forward, he offered little threat.

BECKHAM’S BIRTHDAY CELEBRATIONS CHEERING ON REAL MADRID

The former Real star turned 42 on Tuesday, and he certainly had an enjoyable evening watching his old team.

Beckham’s Snapchat feed had images of him reacting to his team’s dominant showing which will have come as a nice birthday present for the former England captain.

And with Ronaldo, who followed the superbly trodden path of Beckham from Manchester United to Real, grabbing a hat-trick, it will have been even sweeter for the birthday boy.

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