x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Cheers replace jeers for Higuain

Real Madrid miss their injured striker Ruud van Nistelrooy in European competition, yet Gonzalo Higuain has benefited from the Dutchman's absence in the league.

Real Madrid miss their injured striker Ruud van Nistelrooy in European competition, yet Gonzalo Higuain has benefited from the Dutchman's absence in the league. Real's current top scorer, the Argentine has thrived in a side who have won their last 10 league games and closed what appeared to be an unbridgeable gap on Barcelona at the top of the Primera Liga from 12 to four points.

The striker moved to the Bernabeu in 2007, following a ?13 million (Dh60m) transfer from River Plate, having played fewer than 40 first-team games. It was not the first time he had been in Europe. The son of professional footballer Jose Higuain, he was born in Brest, France, where his father played, in 1987. Football runs in the family - older brother Federico plays for Independiente. Gonzalo made his River Plate debut aged 17 in 2004 and received lavish praise for his speed, stamina, strength and selfless running, an attribute not always present in young players. With an impressive assist rate, the under-20 teams from France and Argentina called on his services. He declined both before eventually settling on Argentina - the obvious choice given he'd left France at 10 months old and didn't speak a word of French.

In club football, Europe's grandees showed interest, with Higuain joining Real under coach Fabio Capello. The move was a struggle. After just one season in Spain and with five-and-a-half years left to run on his Real contract, Higuain's future at the club was uncertain. Still only 20, he wasn't given time to find his feet and the demanding crowd criticised him for his profligacy in front of goal at a time when he needed cheers, not jeers.

They failed to see that he was being played out of position on the right wing, contesting his place with David Beckham. The stadium's public address announcer summed up the prevailing discontent, memorably screaming: "At long last, Higuain has put one in!" when he eventually scored against Sevilla after missing two good chances. Had Real not then been strolling to a league title, the criticism would have surely intensified, but Higuain is not easily rattled and had already shown that he could handle the biggest occasions. He had scored twice in the bear pit atmosphere of the River v Boca Juniors game, his first goal in white was against neighbours Atletico and he was also on target in a victory over Barca.

"Things were very complicated at the club when I arrived in Madrid," he explained. "They were difficult times but we won the league and won it again the following year." This season has been Higuain's best so far. Played at the sharp end of Real's attack with Raul as second striker, many of his 14 goals in 21 league games have been crucial as Madrid have closed down Barca. He scored a 97th-minute penalty winner against Atletico and his goals have converted draws into important victories. Higuain puts Real's, and his own, winning form down to several factors, including new coach Juande Ramos.

"Juande has worked extremely hard and he has a good team around him," explains Higuain. "We know what system we will be playing and the attitude and desire of the players has been great. He has personally given me great freedom to play my sort of game, and a lot of confidence. I feel under less pressure." Higuain's progress has won approval from the biggest names in the dressing room. "Higuain runs so much for the team," notes Iker Casillas, Real's goalkeeper and captain. "He has made the breakthrough from a young kid to one of the senior players."

All of which creates an interesting prospect for when Van Nistelrooy returns to league football next season. amitten@thenational.ae