Juventus manager Allegri hopes for Argentine striker, who is nursing a fractured finger, to recover in time against Serie A leaders
Cautious optimism on Gonzalo Higuain's chances of playing against former team Napoli
Gonzalo "Pipita" Higuain is always the focus of the lead in to Napoli versus Juventus collisions. After all he was the man who jilted the one club in favour of greater rewards and prizes at the other.
Every anticipated return to the San Paulo stadium means an examination of the soul. This time, equal attention has been paid to his finger, and the light fracture that may affect his participation.
The digit concerned underwent an operation on Monday, and by Wednesday Higuain was training normally with his Juventus teammates.
Juventus had expressed a cautious hope the costliest footballer in the history of Italy’s Serie A can start Friday night’s meeting against the Napoli the Argentine had helped turn into their chief challengers when he jumped ship for some very big digits indeed - more than €90 million (Dh391.6m), 16 months ago.
Napoli’s president Aurelio di Laurentiis called Higuain a “traitor”. Neapolitans burned replica jerseys bearing Higuain’s name. His huge transfer fee reflected the status he had gained in three seasons in Serie A since leaving Real Madrid.
Most of all Pipita’s huge contribution to making Napoli the second-best in the division. In 2015/16, he scored 36 league goals, 45 per cent of Napoli’s total. Take that away and the effect, as Juventus planned it, ought to be devastating.
Higuain has certainly given Juve additional firepower. He hit 24 goals towards last season’s title and had, until the hand injury sustained last weekend, been coming into form this term.
But how much Napoli miss him is a moot point. Their electric, undefeated start to the Serie A season had them scoring at least three goals per game for their first seven fixtures, and they have a hotshot: Dries Mertens has already reached double figures for the campaign.
If the Higuain defection still casts a long shadow, Mertens has stepped out from the shade cast by Higuain in spectacular fashion.
When the Argentine, who turns 30 this month, was the spearhead of Napoli’s attack, the Belgian, 30 last May, was not so much his understudy as his provider.
In what turned out to be Higuain’s last league match for Napoli, he turned to Mertens to thank him for the pass that led to his last goal in a Napoli shirt at the San Paulo. It was a familiar ritual of gratitude: Often from the wing, often as a substitute, Mertens was good at picking out just the right pass for Higuain the finisher.
Were Higuain still a Napoli man, then the discovery within Mertens of a hidden, prolific, insatiably predatory goalscorer might never have happened. The New Higuain was supposed to have been Arkadiusz Milik, the Polish target man in whom Napoli invested €35m of their Higuain dividend.
When Milik, signed from Ajax, suffered cruciate ligament damage less than two months into his Serie A career, Napoli’s innovative manager Maurizio Sarri had to think laterally. Mertens moved from the wing to more a central position.
It was a Eureka moment. In the past 12 months, Mertens has struck 35 Serie A goals in 34 starts.
“I still don’t see myself as a true No 9, like Pipita,” says Mertens, 1.69m tall and part of a thrilling, rather miniature front three at soaring Napoli, with Lorenzo Insigne and Jose Callejon, “because I often drop and back and switch to the left or the right.
"But this has certainly been the best year of my career.”
Viewed from their summit of Italian football, with more than one third of the season played, 2018 looks like it may the best year in a generation for Napoli supporters, too.
The last of their two league titles was won in 1990. Debt crises and demotions, as far down as Serie C, put the resurgence into dramatic perspective. But so does the record of Juventus, in pursuit of a seventh successive title.
Win on Friday night, and Napoli would go seven points clear of a Juve who have lost twice already in 2017/18, and sit third in the table, two points shy of Inter Milan.
“Napoli are doing exceptionally,” Juventus manager Massimiliano Allegri said, “and they are favourites for the title. This is an important game but not decisive. Our job is to keep up the chase, and be in strong position come March.”
As for Higuain’s damaged digit?
“Let’s say I am hopeful he can be involved,” Allegri replied.