All eyes on Higuain as Juve host Napoli
The fallout from Gonzalo Higuain’s move to Juventus has not settled over the bay of Naples, and the Turin giants host Napoli today in a Serie A sizzler that could see Roma go top. Higuain’s record 36 league goals for Napoli last season gave the entire city a reason to cheer after the southerners fell out of contention late in the title race.
Then, the Argentina international moved to rivals Juventus in an Italian record transfer worth 90 million euros ($98 million), prompting a fan backlash in Naples that is unlikely to settle at least until Maurizio Sarri’s men host Juventus at the San Paolo on April 2. From enjoying the kind of adoration reserved for the likes of the legendary Diego Maradona, who steered Napoli to their sole league titles in 1987 and 1990, Higuain became a pariah overnight.
In the birthplace of the “Margherita”, pizzas with Higuain’s effigy were replaced by one-euro pizzas-sold at a knock-down price if he suffered an injury with Juventus. Higuain has so far avoided that fate, hitting six goals in 10 outings amid what has been a mitigated start for the champions. Juve, bidding for a record sixth consecutive title this season, sit top with a two-point lead on Roma, who are away to Empoli on Sunday. Napoli are in third, a further two points behind.
From idol to betrayer
How Higuain will react, if and when he scores against the club where he was idolized, remains to be seen. He reportedly told a fan in midweek he would “score a double”. Napoli president Aurelio De Laurentiis, who said Higuain “betrayed” the club, responded: “When he said he wanted to score a double he didnt’ say it maliciously. “It’s just a sign of respect for a team (Napoli) that has a reputation for being dangerous.”
Sarri has Napoli playing arguably the most exciting football in Italy, but after losing Higuain they are also without his replacement, Arek Milik. The Poland striker, who made a prolific start after he was bought from Ajax in the summer, is sidelined at least until January after suffering a knee ligament injury. With Juventus striker Paulo Dybala also sidelined with injury, Higuain will partner Mario Mandzukic. The Croat hit his maiden goal of the season in a 4-1 win over Sampdoria midweek, while Higuain is looking to hit the net for the first time since scoring a brace against Udinese on October 2.
Juve defender Giorgio Chiellini joked Higuain’s recent lean spell was because: “He’s saving his goals for Napoli.” But Juve coach Massimiliano Allegri liked what he saw in midweek: “Both of them still have improvements to make, but they really worked well together.” While a Juventus win would set Napoli adrift by seven points, a shock win in Turin would see Roma go top-if the “Giallorossi” account for an embattled Empoli side that has one win and two goals from 10 outings.
Roma travel to the Carlo Castellani buoyed after a 3-1 away win at Sassuolo, where Bosnia striker Edin Dzeko hit a brace to take his league-leading tally to 10 in nine appearances. Coach Luciano Spalletti said the Juventus v Napoli game: “Will have its say, it’s a very important game.” He will be without utility back Alessandro Florenzi, who is out for at least four months after rupturing the cruciate ligament in his left knee.
Elsewhere, AC Milan, fourth at five points adrift, host lowly Pescara looking to make amends for crashing 3-0 at Genoa in midweek. Embattled city rivals Inter face a tough away trip to Sampdoria four days after Mauro Icardi fired a brace, including a late winner, past Torino and England ‘keeper Joe Hart to secure a precious 2-1 San Siro win. —AFP
TURIN: Juventus’ Gonzalo Higuain, right, kicks the ball past Sampdoria’s Luca Cigarini during a Serie A soccer match between Juventus and Sampdoria at the Juventus stadium. —AFP