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Gonzalo Higuaín: ‘Infernal Machine’ Ready to Relaunch Career at Chelsea

Gonzalo Higuaín: ‘Infernal Machine’ Ready to Relaunch Career at Chelsea

Monday, 28 January, 2019 - 08:00
‘He is goals’, says Maurizio Sarri of Gonzalo Higuaín, with whom he will work again at Chelsea. Photograph: Darren Walsh/Chelsea FC via Getty Images
London - Marcus Christenson
"Not even a phone call.” Maurizio Sarri could not hide his disappointment. Gonzalo Higuaín had just left Napoli for Juventus for £75.3m but had not been in touch to say either goodbye or to explain himself. For Sarri, that was inexcusable.

“I find it very difficult to focus on him right now because I have just seen him in a Juventus shirt,” Sarri said in an interview with Corriere dello Sport in July 2016. “It was his decision because the offer we made to him was similar to the other offers he had. From a personal point of view there is bitterness because I expected him to make a short phone call at least, maybe even five minutes before his medical [at Juve].”

The regret was there for everyone to see, yet in the same interview Sarri called Higuaín “the best centre‑forward in the world” and two and a half years later they have been reunited at Chelsea.

It has got all the ingredients to go horribly wrong. Higuaín is not the player he was during that 2015-16 season when he and Sarri worked together and he scored 36 goals in 35 Serie A games, a joint record for the league together with Torino’s Gino Rossetti, who achieved that particular feat in 1928-29. The Premier League will also be a new experience for the 31-year-old after six years in Spain and then five and a half in Italy and it is fair to question whether he will be able to adapt. Finally, he is joining a team who have lost their way somewhat after a superb start to the season, which is not unusual when it comes to Sarri.

Despite all this, Sarri has fought – and won – the battle to sign the player he wanted. Even back in October, when he had been in the Chelsea job for only a few months, Sarri admitted that he was missing Higuaín “a lot”. It is clear, despite the disappointment of how Higuaín conducted himself after leaving Napoli, that Sarri has forgiven the Argentinian and firmly believes he is the answer to Chelsea’s goalscoring problems.

Both Sarri and Higuaín have fond memories from the season they spent together at Napoli. Higuaín has called Sarri the best manager he has worked with and that the Italian made him able to “express himself” on the pitch more than anyone else.

Sarri, meanwhile, has talked fondly about how Higuaín treated him when he arrived at the club in 2015, when the Argentinian was already an established star at Napoli.

“How can he be labelled a traitor by Napoli fans and be like a son to me?” Sarri asked rhetorically in September 2018. “Higuaín is a champion, that is without a question. When I arrived from Empoli at a point when I was a nobody coach, he was always available to me without any hesitation and with a lot of simplicity.”

That season at Napoli is still Higuaín’s best in club football but that is not to say that he has been poor otherwise. He has averaged more than 20 goals a season during his time in Italy and is a natural goalscorer. His spell at Milan, whom he joined on loan from Juventus at the start of this season, has been a huge disappointment and he has at times looked unfit but Sarri would get to work on that immediately. Higuaín recalls that Sarri called him “lazy” during their time in Naples but added: “He wanted me to score like Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo and to be fair to him I scored 36 that season.”

Higuaín’s fitness will be key as he sets about attempting to prove a lot of people in England wrong. The Argentinian has had a strange career in some ways, with an extraordinary amount of goals scored – more than 300 – yet so few trophies to show for them. He has been on the losing side in a World Cup final, a Champions League final and two Copa Américas. He has three Spanish league titles and two Italian ones although he was at Real Madrid at a time when they were not challenging for or winning the Champions League on a regular basis.

Il Pipita, as Higuaín is frequently called, is still fiercely competitive and said in a Guardian interview in 2017: “I want to leave my name at the highest level of this sport. To do that you need to have the humility to continue growing. Gigi Buffon always says as much: he’s almost 40 years old and he still believes he can improve. Imagine. I feel like I can as well. I’m young. I hope I’ve still got lots of years ahead of me in football.”

It is too early to say whether the majority of them will be spent in west London. What is clear, though, is that he has the chance to once again team up with the manager who got the best out of him. Sarri will work Higuaín hard at the training ground and give him the freedom to go out and express himself.

It is unlikely to be a straightforward journey but the mutual respect exists, and that is a good start. Sarri once said: “With him I have the same sensation you have towards a child that is driving you absolutely mad but who you still love.”

And if Sarri can get Higuaín fit and up and running there is no doubt in the Italian’s mind that he has a world-beater in his squad. “Higuaín will score goals for as long as he is alive,” Sarri told Corriere dello Sport in September 2018. “He is goals. He is a goal animal, an infernal machine.”

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