Despite Serie A having ended almost two months ago, the name of Gonzalo Higuain has continued to feature prominently in the news, even as football on the peninsula took its annual break. His involvement in the Copa América was of course a major factor, netting twice to help Argentina reach the final against Chile. Once there however, he would unfortunately blaze his spot-kick over the crossbar, handing victory to the hosts and seeing the Albiceleste trophy drought continue for another year.
Yet that is far from the only reason for the sustained interest in the striker this summer, as he has once again been at the centre of endless speculation over his immediate future. Last year – despite having only arrived at Napoli twelve months earlier – the former Real Madrid star was strongly linked with Liverpool, while revealing that a high-profile international team-mate has also tried to convince him to join Barcelona.
“Messi said certain things and I can only be flattered by them,” Higuain told La Gazzetta dello Sport, although he was careful to add “that did not mean that I ever wanted to leave.” But the rumours clearly affected his play as the 2014/15 campaign got underway, failing to net his first domestic goal until late October as Napoli’s European struggles also took their toll.
Losing to Athletic Club in the Champions League playoff round was a major disappointment, and perhaps left the 27-year-old regretting his decision to remain with the Partenopei. It also came on the heels of more international heartbreak, Higuain spurning a wonderful opportunity to score in the World Cup Final following Toni Kroos’ poor back pass. He compounded that error shortly afterwards by straying offside, negating what he thought was a perfectly valid goal and then being forced to look on as Germany went on to lift the trophy.
He eventually found his best form, weighing in with 30 goals and ten assists for Napoli, but was unfortunately unable to help them finish any higher than fifth in Serie A, while they also lost in the Europa League Semi-Finals to Dnipro. That signaled the end of the Rafael Benitez era at the Stadio San Paolo, with Maurizio Sarri being appointed as his replacement following some impressive work with Empoli.
Comfortably securing their top-flight survival, Sarri won many admirers last term for the impressive up-tempo style he employed with the Tuscan minnows, but quite what his arrival means for Napoli is yet to truly be seen. The coaching change has once again ignited talk of a potential Higuain exit, with Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United believed to be leading a lengthy list of potential suitors.
Club owner Aurelio De Laurentiis has been responsible for much of the chatter, making a very public – and oddly specific – announcement that the player’s release clause was €94.736 million after various press reports of a deal being struck for around half that figure. “Obviously we know about the clause because we signed the contract together, but only the Napoli President is speaking about it.” Higuain’s brother and agent Nicolas told Radio CRC recently.
“I think if a club doesn’t want to sell a player, they shouldn't give a price, but just declare that they’re unsellable,” he continued, and the club would subsequently do just that. A statement was issued to explain the situation before De Laurentiis was caught on camera responding “I wish” when asked if Higuain would leave, noting he “could buy eight players with that fee.”
“In football there’s no sense of irony, people take themselves too seriously,” the President told Mediaset earlier this week, keen to stress that “there is absolutely no chance that Higuain will leave!” Sarri also discussed the striker – a huge fan favourite in Naples – explaining his belief that “he must rest, both physically and mentally, and not have fatigue from last year,” at a recent press conference before expressing a more detailed opinion on how the Argentinean star could increase the impact of his performances.
“Higuain can improve, because lately when I’ve seen him he’s looked too nervous. If he played with a smile he could do more,” the 56-year-old coach told reporters. “He has to go out there and have fun. Whoever smiles and has fun on the pitch always wins in the long run.”
Fans at the San Paolo will hope to have some fun of their own when stadium announcer Daniele “Decibel” Bellini next hurls his trademark cry of “GON-ZA-LO” into the Neapolitan sky, responding with a deafening “HI-GUA-IN!” to celebrate every time their hero finds the back of the net.
Having done so 53 times in just 102 appearances for the club, they could be forgiven for wondering if he will add to either total despite those constant reassurances.
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