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Heroic Higuain plays through the pain to down Napoli again

22:01 GMT 01/12/2017
Higuain Napoli Juventus
A typically instinctive finish earned Juve three valuable points in a hostile San Paolo, as Pipita once more came back to haunt his old team

Nothing lasts forever at the highest levels for professionals. Two years ago almost to the day Gonzalo Higuain was the toast of Naples , after his latest goals had taken Napoli to the top of Serie A for the first time since the golden days of Diego Maradona in 1990. 

In 2017, however, the Argentine is a hate figure amongst the San Paolo faithful, who never missed a chance to make their feelings felt during a typically combative clash between the southern Italians and Juventus on Friday. Unfortunately for the home fans, Higuain proved once again that he took his innate scoring ability with him when he walked out on the club for Turin. 

Even playing through the pain of a broken hand Pipita showed his worth with the only goal as Juve took a win that could prove crucial by the end of the Serie A season. 

Indeed, most talk prior to kick-off around this six-pointed was focused on whether the centre-forward would even be fit to feature. Higuain sat out Juventus' 3-0 win over Benevento last weekend as an unused substitute, although the cause of the omission at that point had still not been revealed. 

Juve subsequently confirmed that their sharp-shooter had broken a metacarpal bone in his left hand , and just three days before stepping out again at San Paolo he underwent surgery on the fracture. 

"The hand is definitely painful but he could be available. We'll see. Let's say I'm confident," coach Massimiliano Allegri had warned in the week.

His confidence was well placed. In a game where physical clashes were frequent and fluid passages of play few and far between, Higuain's predatory instincts made the difference. He lurked patiently on the shoulder of his marker as Douglas Costa opened up the field on the counter, waiting for the moment to break ranks with the game still deadlocked at 0-0. 

His burst was timed to perfection. The Argentine slipped through the Napoli offside trap like a cat burglar inching through a half-opened window, just in time to meet Paulo Dybala's pinpointt pass and bear down on Jose Reina in the Napoli net. The home defence quickly snapped out of their trance and threw everything at the intruder, but it was too late: Higuain managed to stroke the ball past Reina at the goalkeeper's near post moments before being bundled over in an undignified and, given the events of the past few days, undoubtedly painful heap. 

Napoli must rue the day they were forced to surrender their star forward into the hands of their detested northern neighbours. Higuain has now scored five times in his last five appearances against his former club, and seems to lap up the vitriol he receives from the stands. This latest effort might just be the most important of all, as Juve's win brings them within just a point of the current leaders of the Scudetto race. 

The hosts will also feel aggrieved at having their pockets picked in such a manner against a visiting side that, contrary to the swashbuckling football that has largely been the hallmark of their six consecutive Serie A triumphs under Antonio Conte and now Allegri, were content to play deep and work off their opponent's mistakes. Napoli enjoyed 67 per cent of possession at San Paolo and recorded 15 shots to their rivals' seven, but struggled to fashion chances of real consequence against a backline that, after recent waverings, looked like the Juve unit of old. 

Allegri's men did not do much to merit victory, it is true. But it will matter little by the end of the season, as the coach's decision to risk Higuain paid huge dividends. 

"The best defence wins the league title," he had said prior to kick-off. "Maybe we won't have the best defence this season but we want to win the Scudetto.

"Napoli are doing amazing things in Serie A this season and it will be an important test for us ahead of the match against Olympiacos, where we need to reach the Champions League last 16. To beat Napoli would be really significant, but we're focused on putting in a top performance. Whoever makes the fewest mistakes has a better chance of winning."

Juve were the team that made the fewest mistakes on Friday. And in heroic Higuain they also had the cutting edge to make the difference and throw the Serie A title race wide open at San Paolo.