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UEFA Champions League

Cometh the hour, cometh the €90m man: Higuain delivers for Juventus

4:41 PM EDT 5/3/17
Gonzalo Higuain Monaco Juventus Champions League
This season the Italian champions harbour serious aspirations of winning the Champions League and view el Pipita as the missing piece in their jigsaw


Juventus had one thing in mind when they signed Gonzalo Higuain and that was winning the Champions League. They already had enough players on their books capable of firing them to domestic glory – again and again and again.

A high-class centre forward who would guide them through in difficult moments and when chances seldom came was required. Twenty-one years Juve have waited for Champions League glory and no expense would be spared in pursuit of it.

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There were many doubts – even up to Wednesday night – that Higuain would be that man. In Serie A there had been no problem. There have been 23 goals in 34 Italian top flight games so far.

But the kings of Italian football did not pay €90m to Napoli for another league marksman. The skeptics pointed to his European record with Real Madrid. He was never the man to lead them to a title and - indeed, the Merengue embarked on their run of two Champions League crowns in three seasons only after he had left. 

He played 48 times in this competition for Real Madrid and only managed nine goals in total. Even worse, there were just two goals in 20 knockout games. Those came against CSKA Moscow in the last 16 during the 2011-12 season and Galatasaray in the following year's quarter-final when progress was already as good as assured.

His Champions League form had been sketchy. The group stage passed with three goals in six games – not a bad record, but two of those came against group whipping boys Dinamo Zagreb.

That was Higuain all over. The two second-round matches against Porto this year passed without the 29-year-old making much of an impact. Barcelona were clinically dispatched while strike partner Paulo Dybala attracted the lion’s share of the praise.

Higuain was the focus only briefly and that was because he missed more big chances.

But in Monte Carlo the Higuain that Juventus expected in the first place showed up. These were big, decisive goals on the biggest stage of them all. He now has five goals in 10 matches; his best-ever Champions League return. How different the perceptions are now. So often the fall guy when it comes to the big games, this time he was in the spotlight for all the right reasons. 

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"It was important for me to remain calm and tranquil. Now we're going home with a big win," he said after the game, his happiness contrasting sorely with the dejected image he left at the end of three lost finals for Argentina

"There's still a second leg but we're happy with the win tonight."

Much of the focus in the build-up to this game was on Kylian Mbappe at the other end. The teenager has lit up the Champions League for Monaco but was snuffed out by Juventus’s well-drilled backline as well as Gigi Buffon in goal.

Juve had a game plan to deal with Mbappe and his mentor Radamel Falcao. The addition of Andrea Barzagli to the starting line-up looked odd in the beginning but allowed Juve to defend with five men thereby leaving one centre-back spare to deal with either Mbappe or Falcao all night.

For that reason Monaco simply could not get going. They appeared subdued, without their usual vigour and imagination. Attacking weapons like Mbappe, Falcao, Bernardo Silva and Thomas Lemar could not find the space they needed. They were made to look ordinary and not at all like what they really are – the most exciting team in Europe. For that, Juve coach Max Allegri deserves immense credit.

Another upshot of their shape was that Dani Alves was permitted space on the right flank to gallop forward and attack Djibril Sidibe’s side whenever the opportunity called for it. Higuain’s first goal owed everything to the Brazilian.

Alves found enough space on the right side of the area to aim a backheel into the box where Higuain swept home. The second – again – was the product of the former Barcelona full-back. His cross was inch-perfect and needed only Higuain to keep his composure and slide in behind Kamil Glik. He obliged.

Juventus have all but extinguished the threat of Monaco with their expertise, their experience, their collective aptitude for this stage. At the apex of it all was Higuain, the man who finally delivered for them in Europe.