‘Pipita’. It’s not the most inventive nickname, and may even strike some as a bit ironic. Though it actually is an adapted hand-me-down from Gonzalo Higuain’s father (‘Pipa’), and relates to his apparently large nose, it conjures the image of someone small. Some diminutive speedster, barrelling around the pitch with a lot of might, but little muscle.
And, commonly, Higuain is not thought of as one of these kinds of players. Because he’s not. But that also follows another misconception – that he’s overweight, and therefore slow. He’s not that either, and he definitely wasn’t when he was basking in the Italian sun.
Of course, there are certain physical parameters that must be met when sunning yourself on the Amalfi coast. You don’t want to stand out by being insufficiently sculpted. It’s a competitive field – as is the one at Stadio San Paolo, but that didn’t stop the Argentine international from swiftly making it his own following a £35m move from Real Madrid in July 2013.
A veritable bargain, considering the £55m they’d just recouped for Edinson Cavani, a player almost 11 months older than Higuain and considerably less proven. Yes, the Uruguayan had shown his worth in three seasons at Napoli, and his potential in the seasons before that at Palermo.
But Higuain had been at Real Madrid for six years. Real Madrid. Six years. That’s pedigree.
Just like so many over the years, the forward escaped the clutches of Arsenal before setting up shop in Naples. And herein started an Italian love affair, not unlike the founding father of them all, Romeo and Juliet – in that it ended in quasi-tragedy, but also that it all started in Verona.
Higuain’s first goal for the club came at the Stadio Marc’Antonio Bentegodi, in a 4-2 win
against Chievo Verona, where he assisted the second and scored the decisive fourth.
16 more league goals would follow in that first season, as he ended with a respectable 23 across competitions in a pedestrian season for the league, where most of the final standings were decided in November; the top three didn’t change after the 13th gameweek (with the Neapolitans third) and the top four was unchanged from the 17th.
The 2014/15 campaign was simultaneously sweeter and more bitter for the Argentine, as he scored six more goals than the year before, but missed a penalty in the de facto Champions League play-off with Lazio.
It’s hard to downplay the momentous effect that 4-2 loss (notice the Veronan symmetry) had on Higuain’s career – past, present and future.
In terms of the past, it reinforced the belief built from the previous summer’s World Cup final that on the big stage, Higuain was a big time bottler, and made it his everlasting legacy. In the present it knocked the Partenopei out of the Champions League for the next campaign, and nailed the final coffin in Rafa Benitez’s Neapolitan career, as he left for Real Madrid that summer (which went well).
As for the future, it spurred him on to hit the unprecedented heights he would in the next year, but we’ll get to that.
The strangest thing about that Lazio game, though, was that he was undeniably their best player. It was he who played Jose Callejon through with a delicious first time ball in the first half, only for the Spaniard to BOTTLE (!!!!!) the chance.
It was he who, fresh from a signature Benitez half time team talk (when they were 2-0 down), hauled his side back in the game with two expertly taken goals – the second being a masterclass in position, poise and timing.
And sure, he blazed the penalty over the bar – just like he would in the Copa America final a month later – but they were dead and buried before he temporarily resurrected them. As happens all the time in football, and most other walks of life, the narrative distorts the truth.
Indeed, contrary to popular narrative-derived opinion, Higuain did not even bottle that aforementioned Copa America final against Chile. There is often a moment cited in the last seconds of the game, when he ‘missed’ the chance to spare his side a penalty shoot-out and clinch glory.
But if you watch this chance in isolation, there’s no way it can be perceived as a bottle-job.
It comes from a counter attack forged by a marauding run from Lionel Messi, who plays it wide to Ezequiel Lavezzi, who in turn plays it into the far post where a straining Higuian narrowly misses wide of the post.
If anyone bottled it, it was Lavezzi. His pass – a fairly simple one to execute – was well wide of the mark, and left the striker with an almost impossible distance to make up and angle to score from.
And, if you’re going to talk about bottlers in that game, then how about Messi himself. After his heroics in the 6-1 demolition job of Paraguay in the semi final, the GOAT turned into the GHOST when it came to the final. But Messi is Messi, and Higuain is Higuain. Their narratives had been set in stone by then.
Even if Messi “BOTTLED” the Champions League semi final in 2012, when he carelessly blazed his penalty onto the crossbar, or fluffed his lines against Iceland at the 2018 World Cup, it’s not the enduring narrative. The same goes for Arjen Robben in the 2012 UCL final. Their penalty misses don’t define how they’re remembered as players, and neither should Higuain’s.
But, despite all the allegations of bottling and being hyper-sensitive, how did the forward respond to that summer’s mishaps? By breaking the Serie A goalscoring record for a single season, of course.
Few seasonal highlight reels can boast a more varied, more spectacular selection of goals. He was utterly remarkable. Hence why Juventus forked out 90% of their world record transfer haul for Paul Pogba on signing him.
And it was in Turin that Higuain (that is if his name wasn’t Higuain and the narrative wasn’t cemented) reversed this trend. If at Napoli he could be categorised as a striker who scored whenever he wanted, then at Juve he evolved into a striker who scored whenever it truly mattered.
No, he never hit the illustrious heights of 36 goals in 35 games again, but time and again he saved the Old Lady from perilous positions.
From his first goal in a Juventus shirt – a 75th minute winner against Fiorentina on the opening day (the celebration of which is now his definitive gif) – to the 70th minute winner against title challengers and former side Napoli in November, to the crucial 90th minute equaliser in May’s Turin derby that helped to eventually fend of Roma in the title race, it was always him.
And that didn’t stop the following year. In the defining game of the 2017/18 season, six days after his former side had a produced a stirring finish to potentially redirect the Scudetto back down south, it was he who stepped up in the final seconds against Inter to nod home and effectively seal the title.
How’s that for bottle?