Spanish Inquisition: Gonzalo Higuain - Real Madrid's Gifted Talisman

Move over, Cristiano - Pipita is the main man at Los Blancos, writes Paul Macdonald...
When the time comes to look back on the 2008/09 Primera Division season, followers of Real Madrid will no doubt concur that it was an unmitigated disaster.

Barcelona lifting the Champions League trophy on their way to completing their 'Triplete' was the final insult to a woeful campaign that promised little and delivered even less, but even the Blaugrana's success aside, through time it is still likely to be considered one of the most regrettable years in the clubs' history.

It began with the summer of high-profile snubs. Despite back-to-back La Liga crowns resting in the trophy cabinet, David Villa, David Silva, Santi Cazorla and, of course, Cristiano Ronaldo all snubbed then-coach Bernd Schuster to remain with the own employers, reducing Los Blancos’ transfer activity to a bargain price swoop for Dutchman Rafael van der Vaart.

Schuster departed soon after, while incumbent Juande Ramos encouraged but ultimately capitulated. Liverpool handed the 'Men in White' a humiliating European exit, while Barcelona offered similar treatment in the title-defining El Clasico at the Santiago Bernabeu.

Player revolts, fans in despair and the disturbance created by internal politics in the build-up to Florentino Perez’s eventual return, all combined to generate the most tumultuous of atmospheres.

However, from the scant optimism emerged a diamond in the rough in the form of one Gonzalo Higuain.

The Argentine had been on the periphery of the first-team in his first two seasons since joining as an impressionable 19-year old, with the club seemingly unsure of his best position. Furthermore, elitist Madridistas had arrogantly alluded to his workmanlike attitude in a negative light, suggesting that the likes of Zinedine Zidane and Guti produced maximum flair with less noticable effort than Higuain.

The minority, as they were at the time, were distinctly wide off the mark. As the season unfolded, Higuain single-handedly carried Los Blancos through a lengthy unbeaten spell to ensure that, for a while at least, a title challenge to Pep Guardiola's formidable opposition seemed feasible.

Truly the mark of a world-class player is the ability to be counted when your team really needs you, and Higuain displayed that attribute more than any other during the 2008/09 term. In a team lacking leadership, drive and invention, he bore the burden and struck goal after goal, at crucial times of matches, to save Real Madrid from defeat. He finished the season with 23 league strikes from 31 starts.

Pipita hooks home a spectacular volley


A New Galaxy Emerges

Then came Los Nuevos Galacticos, an influx of new stars, and another new face in the dugout. After the grandiose entrances of Karim Benzema, Kaka, and Cristiano Ronaldo, Higuain was reportedly told by coach Chilean Manuel Pellegrini that he ‘had to try out the new players, in order to allow them to adapt to their colleagues.’

A footballer with less self-belief or indeed less patience may not have stood for such treatment – he who had been the figurehead and the hero in so many title-winning games was facing having to prove himself all over again to avoid being back to a bit-part member of a squad bulging with egos and self-importance.

The Spanish press fawned over Ronaldo; after all, he is the most expensive acquisition in the history of the sport. They asked him if he felt like Real Madrid’s saviour. A coy CR9 side-stepped their gushing, but had a glint in his eye, half-believing that he was here on a rescue mission, throwing out the life-raft to an ailing giant... the giant that he had always dreamt of playing for.

All the while, Higuain remained composed, a concentrated head amongst the whirlwind of superciliousness that had swept through the Bernabeu. He knew he could not influence the cavalcade of brand name signatures – he would simply prove his worth whenever he was given the opportunity.

Yes, when Ronaldo has been flowing, he has looked like the beating heart of Los Blancos, but he has suffered from injury and suspension and that has crucially limited his input. After some debatable league performances and the now-infamous Copa del Rey catastrophe, Pellegrini did not have the Portuguese available to conjure magic for his side, and so looked around for inspiration.

Higuain wheels away after another wonder goal

Stunning Strikes

He had been so blind. Real Madrid’s catalyst for success had been training in front of him the entire time. The team was re-jigged to incorporate Higuain, and he has picked up from where he ended the 2008/09 season - as top scorer. Now, instead of being asked to fill in whenever necessary, he is being asked to conduct proceedings – the role he was born to play all along.

This young man – still only 22 – has limitless potential, not only in his devastating finishing ability and his impeccable timing, but the way in which the Argentine’s goals over the past year or so represent one long highlight reel of brilliance.

From beating five defenders to slam home a stunning injury-time winner against Getafe, or scoring four goals in a single match to vanquish Malaga, he is the man with the Midas touch. This season, his precision volley against Real Zaragoza or wicked curling shot versus Mallorca are particular standouts. It seems Higuain has the knack of scoring wonderful goals from all positions in and around the goal.

His touch of genius on Saturday evening to pull the ball out of the sky, swivel and round Espanyol 'keeper Carlos Kameni before rolling the ball home sums up the talent Higuain possesses.

The Bernabeu crowd can be an unforgiving mistress when times are bad, but they appreciate a special player when they see one, and Higuain’s arrival as substitute on Saturday was as rapturous as any introduction heard in the stadium in recent memory. The supporters realise that Pipita has become the cog that could potentially drive this colossal engine to success.

Albicelestes Glory?

There have been many players over the years since Diego Maradona’s acrimonious departure from the game that have been bestowed with the ‘New Diego’ moniker, and those players are usually supremely talented, but with temperament issues and a questionable work rate.

Gonzalo Higuain covers as much of the pitch as any other player in La Liga, meaning he combines a positive attitude and ethic with a dribbling ability and shot among the best in the world.

Maradona embarrassingly ignored this for too long, but fortunately it appears Higuain will head to South Africa in the summer for the World Cup, and despite intense competition for places, he has an excellent chance of leading the line for his adopted country, one where his father, Jorge, plied his trade for many years.

It has taken three years, false starts, tough times and a new dawn, but Higuain has fended off every bump in the road during his short career and has blossomed into a world class footballer, one that the Merengues rely on.

The question should be, why did it take Real Madrid so long to realise that he is the answer to everything this great club needs?