x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Higuain so hard to stop

Marcotti's man Competition for a place in Real's line-up has only spurred Argentine forward to more goals this season.

Real Madrid's Gonzalo Higuain started the 2009-10 season on the bench, but, from mid-October became a regular. And he repaid manager Manuel Pellegrini with goals, plenty of them: 10 in just nine league starts.
Real Madrid's Gonzalo Higuain started the 2009-10 season on the bench, but, from mid-October became a regular. And he repaid manager Manuel Pellegrini with goals, plenty of them: 10 in just nine league starts.

They say it is in times of adversity that great men are made. Gonzalo Higuain may have only turned 22 a few weeks ago, but if he is on the cusp of greatness it is also thanks to the adversity he has overcome in the first four months of this season. You would have thought that a 22-year-old forward who scores 22 goals, as he did for Real Madrid last year, could consider his job safe. Not at the Bernabeu.

Higuain spent the summer watching as Real brought in a string of players who just happened to play his preferred positions, wing and striker: Karim Benzema, Kaka and Cristiano Ronaldo. Serious competition. Plus, of course, there were Rafael van der Vaart, Raul and Ruud van Nistelrooy. He must have thought getting playing time would be difficult. Little did he know that his very survival at the club would be in doubt.

Real told him they would make a decision during training camp whether to hang on to him or Alvaro Negredo, yet another newcomer who had scored 19 goals the previous season. "I'm not scared. If I do my best and succeed, I'll be happy. If I do my best and fail, it will be because I failed against champions. I can live with that," he told the Spanish press. You probably know what happened next. Negredo was shipped to Seville.

Higuain started on the bench, but, from mid-October became a regular. And he repaid manager Manuel Pellegrini with goals, plenty of them: 10 in just nine league starts, plus three appearances as a substitute. That kind of reliability has followed him throughout his career. Like those thoroughbreds who never disappoint, Higuain has made a habit of popping up when it matters. And, like the race horses, he has first-rate bloodlines. His father, Jorge, was a top-drawer defender who starred for Boca and River. His mother's brother, Santos Zacarias, was also a successful footballer, as is his brother, Federico.

Perhaps that is why he made his debut for River at 17 and, in a few months, found himself at the centre of diplomatic dispute. Because he holds a French passport - his father was playing for Brest when he was born - Raymond Domenech called him up for Les Bleus. "I'm not in any kind of hurry to decide which country I want to represent," he said, backing up his words by turning down every call up from Argentina and France until none other than a certain Diego Maradona brought him on board earlier this year for the crucial qualifying match against Peru. What did Higuain do? Why, he scored, of course.

River Plate was always going to be a tight fit for a boy with his talents which is why, like so many before him, he moved to Europe after 18 months as a regular at El Monumental. He joined Real Madrid for ?15million (Dh79m) and immediately made an impact as Fabio Capello's side came from behind to seal an unlikely Primera Liga title. Capello's successor, Bernd Schuster, tried to bring him along slowly in his first season, but Higuain still scored eight goals in 25 games, of which he started just seven.

Then, of course, came the break-out year, 2008-09, the season in which he scored 22 Liga goals (including four in a single, incredible outing against Malaga) but still saw his place threatened the following summer. Now, despite the competition, he's once again a key figure in the side. It is not difficult to see why. Higuain has the mix of size (a solid 6ft 1in), pace and technique, coupled with the versatility of being able to line up anywhere on the attacking front and even as a winger in a 4-4-2. Pellegrini loves the fact he can slot him anywhere or even send him in off the bench: the sight of Higuain stripping off halfway through the second half terrifies battle-weary opposing defenders.

He may not be considered a full-fledged Galactico. But given the hit-or-miss performances this season of those who are (Raul and Benzema come to mind), it probably will not be long before he achieves that status. And, given his age, we can expect him to score goals and make headlines for the next decade or so. sports@thenational.ae