How Higuain has silenced the doubters
By Didac Peyret
No striker in Europe can boast Gonzalo Higuain’s goals-per-minute ratio. After a summer of high-profile arrivals, the fear was that Higuain would be lost in the galaxy of stars at Real Madrid and even the most optimistic in the capital hadn’t imagined that he would become one of the most consistent goalscorers on the planet.
His passion and his ability have long been acknowledged, but now he is also scoring goals on a regular basis. As El Pais recently explained in an excellent report, he has scored 16 goals for his club this season – one every 77 minutes – with other top-class forwards unable to match his efficiency in front of goal. Wayne Rooney has scored one goal every 105 minutes for Manchester United, while Lionel Messi is only slightly ahead with one every 103 minutes. Higuain has been clinical, scoring, on average, from every 2.6 shots.
With Karim Benzema’s signing and club legend Raul’s continued presence, Higuain appeared to present the biggest dilemma for Manuel Pellegrini but his record now offers a persuasive reason to make him an integral part of his side.
His undoubted success with Madrid this season is now translating onto the international stage and, ahead of this summer’s World Cup, the 22-year-old looks to have established himself in the Argentina first XI despite Diego Maradona’s predilection for sweeping changes.
He had endured a difficult and controversial start with the national team. His career with La Albiceleste started on the wrong foot as, in 2006, France called him up to play for Les Bleus. Higuain, who was born in France because his father use to play for Brest, took his time before making a decision. In a particularly passionate and emotional country like Argentina, where football helps people to forget their troubles, his indecision was viewed as an affront.
A year later, El Pipita, as he is known, caused controversy when he refused a call-up to the FIFA Under-20 World Cup: “I’m ready to play for Argentina but not to go to the youth World Cup,” he told the Argentinean press. “I’d rather go on holiday than go to that.”
For some time, the indications seemed to be that Higuain’s personality had cost him an international career. There were even suggestions that the young players at the core of the national team – led by Sergio Aguero and Messi – did not want him in the team. It was also said that Fernando Gago, his compatriot at Real Madrid, refused to take part in a joint interview with Higuain for Madrid-based newspaper Marca due to personal differences.
Nevertheless, he got better and better for his club, learning new skills to become more dangerous on the pitch. In October 2009, he finally made his international debut, scoring the opener on his debut, a potentially vital World Cup qualification victory over Peru. This week, he made it two goals in four games as Argentina won 1-0 in a friendly in Germany, and it is looking increasingly like he could be a central figure in South Africa.
He is now a different player to the 19-year-old who moved to the Bernabeu from River Plate for €13 million in 2007. Higuain had at first looked anxious in front of goal; now, having had extensive shooting practice in training, he is lethal.
“All strikers have good moments and bad moments, but scoring goals is something that you can work on,” he said recently. “In the last two seasons, I’ve been calmer when I’ve had chances to score. In the past, I had many chances in front of goal but I use to rush and it would end in failure.”
Now, he has improved in all aspects: he plays an important role in the team game, he’s able to created his own chances, is more physical and knows when to take a moment rather than acting hastily. Significantly, he also has the ability to make a difference in the dying minutes. Delivering against the best sides in Europe in the Champions League appears to be the only area he needs to improve.
Manolo Ruiz, who was the assistant manager during Bernd Schuster’s time at Madrid, told El Pais recently: “He has never buckled under the pressure of competition. With us, he had to fight with Raul and Van Nistelrooy and he didn’t give up like others had. He has a winning character and he lives for football. Gonzalo was always a consistent player and he has a great work ethic.”
Higuain, meanwhile, remains focused on delivering on the pitch, not becoming distracted by recent praise but still maintaining the highest ambitions: “It’s a dream to be so close to the top scorers in La Liga. I’m doing my best to finish as the pichichi.”
With 16 La Liga goals, Higuain is just one behind Messi and Valencia’s David Villa.