Gonzalo Higuain is finally the top option

Gonzalo Higuain has four goals from six starts and Napoli feel doubly blessed for Higuain’s early impetus.

Gonzalo Higuain is giving Napoli fans plenty to celebrate since moving over from Real Madrid. Girogio Perottino
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Gonzalo Higuain will expect to be booed at Ashburton Grove on Tuesday night, though the jeers may be milder than the last time he represented Napoli at the home of Arsenal.

That was two months ago, the occasion a friendly tournament, the Emirates Cup, and Higuain, then a relatively new arrival at Napoli, was the day’s pantomime villain, albeit through no cause of his own.

The special attention should be taken as a compliment.

Arsenal supporters spent half the summer transfer window hoping, indeed expecting, Higuain to join their club as the high-class centre-forward they thought they needed, with a proven record – six and half years at Real Madrid – and a cachet, as the No 1 choice for his country as Lionel Messi’s partner up front for Argentina.

Fans were not misguided in imagining Higuain in Arsenal’s colours, as Arsene Wenger, the Arsenal manager, confirms, and they were entitled to regard not signing him as an opportunity missed.

“We were working on two or three targets and Higuain was one of them,” said Wenger.

“It didn’t come off in the end, but that doesn’t take anything away from his quality. Napoli took advantage at the right moment.”

That moment was brought about by Napoli’s sale of the Uruguayan Edinson Cavani, their prolific former striker, to Paris Saint-Germain.

A sumptuous €65 million (Dh323.2m) came to the Italian club as a result. The search for a replacement target man was urgent.

Higuain cost €37m, a fee Arsenal had dithered over.

Already it looks like a coup. Cavani had been plentiful for Napoli – 104 goals in 138 matches – but, so far, he is scarcely missed.

Higuain has four goals from six starts as a Napoli player, including one in the 2-1 victory over Borussia Dortmund that gave his team a flying start in the Uefa Champions League two weeks ago. Napoli feel doubly blessed for Higuain’s early impetus.

A freak accident, when he injured his face while swimming off the island of Capri on a day off shortly after he joined, had looked as if it might rule him out of action. Thankfully, though bloodied at the time and taken to hospital, the damage was not grave.

The football played by Rafa Benitez’s team suits Higuain, as Wenger notes.

“Napoli’s counter-attacking style is what struck me in the Emirates Cup,” said the Arsenal manager.

“When they win the ball they come out very quickly with Jose Callejon, Marek Hamsik, Lorenzo Insigne and Higuain – they all come out like bombs every time they win the ball.”

The Argentine, 26, is also enjoying being the principal striker.

It was not a status Madrid ever quite granted to Higuain. There, his early days were a challenge.

He was still a teenager when, in early 2007, he was asked to make the adjustment from Argentine domestic football, where he had played for River Plate, to the Spanish Primera Liga, and he had to do so in mid-season, as a January signing. Madrid’s coach at the time was Fabio Capello, who had just let the brilliant and popular Brazilian, Ronaldo, leave.

That meant Higuain had a good deal to live up to. While Capello admired his hard work, the goals did not flow, and at one point even Madrid’s public address announcer drew attention to a long barren spell. “At last, a goal for Higuain!” he declared to a full Bernabeu stadium during a match against Sevilla.

It was hardly an example of a club getting behind one of their own.

By the end of his Madrid spell, though, Higuain’s 122 goals from 264 games were a healthy reflection not just of his ability as a finisher, but a footballer with the capacity to play as a productive foil to others.

His partners in Madrid’s forward line were many, and mostly they were ahead of him in the hierarchy: players such as Ruud van Nistelrooy, Raul or Cristiano Ronaldo would more often be the focus of Madrid’s tactics than Higuain.

A benefit of that has come with Argentina, whose game plan is evolving more and more around Messi. Higuain is now established, ahead of the likes of Carlos Tevez, as the World Footballer of the Year’s preferred partner in attack.

Higuain has actually outscored Messi in the 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign, but he still felt that to ensure he remained Argentina’s No 9, he needed to move from Madrid, where a place in the first team was not always assured.

The same instincts led Mesut Ozil away from Madrid last month to Arsenal.

“As we now know,” said Wenger, “Real Madrid sold two great players in the summer. One of them went to Napoli, one went to Arsenal. So it’s 1-1 on that front.”