Gonzalo Higuaín suffers Milan meltdown as Juve push him over the edge

Paolo Bandini on 12 November 2018

Had Gennaro Gattuso noticed something in training, the first tremors that foretell the eruption of an emotional volcano? Milan’s match against Juventus was always going to bear extra significance for Gonzalo Higuaín, cast aside by the Bianconeri following the arrival of Cristiano Ronaldo this summer. Still, the words spoken by the manager at his pre-game press conference sound prescient with hindsight.

“The way he experiences matches, and the way that his character is, he needs to try to stay calm,” said Gattuso. “Lucidity is required.”

Perhaps Higuaín was feeling perfectly clear-headed as he ushered Franck Kessié aside in the 40th minute. It was the Argentinian who had earned his team a penalty, timing his run just right to beat Mehdi Benatia to Suso’s low centre and sending the ball against the defender’s arm with his first touch. Why should he, Milan’s leading scorer, not be the one to reap the reward?

Well, OK, yes, there are some reasons we could give. Higuaín’s record from the spot is mediocre. He had taken 17 previous penalties in Serie A, and missed five. Kessié’s failure rate was one in six.

And then there are the memories of miskicks when the stakes have been highest. Higuaín infamously blazed his penalty over the bar during the shootout that decided the 2015 Copa América for Chile. He had done the same weeks earlier for Napoli as they lost to Lazio in what was effectively a play-off for Champions League places on the final day of the season.

Is it unfair to invoke these incidents time and again? Higuaín has found the net in big matches as well. Through his two seasons at Juventus, he scored against his previous club, Napoli, five times.

But he did not score on Sunday. Higuaín’s penalty was at least on target, aimed precisely towards the bottom left corner, but without enough power to beat Wojciech Szczesny. The goalkeeper got his fingers to the ball and pushed it on to the post.

The score was 1-0 to Juventus at that point, Mario Mandzukic having risen above Ricardo Rodríguez to thump home a back-post header in the eighth minute. It was 2-0 by the time Higuaín got himself sent off, in the 83rd.

Was it the sight of his replacement, Ronaldo, scoring moments earlier that sent him over the edge? Regardless, it was plain that Gattuso’s remarks about the player’s emotional state had become a prophecy. After being booked for a foul on Benatia, Higuaín screamed furiously in the face of the referee, Paolo Mazzoleni, and was promptly shown a second yellow.

Anger turned to incredulity, outrage and a hint of tears. Both cards were fully merited from a refereeing standpoint, yet it was striking to see his former teammates – as much as his current ones – move to console him. Together, after several failed attempts, they eventually steered him away from the official. Juve’s Blaise Matuidi kissed the side of his head as he finally began to walk towards the tunnel.

Minds turned back to Napoli’s defeat at Udinese in April 2016. Higuaín was on the way to completing the most prolific season in Serie A history, but lost his temper at the end of a 3-1 defeat that marked the beginning of the end for his team’s title bid. He put his hands on referee Massimiliano Irrati that day and earned himself a three-game ban.

Higuaín avoided a repeat of that mistake, at least, on Sunday. He did not hide from reporters at full time but instead made a public apology to Mazzoleni as well as to his teammates, manager and fans. He also said sorry to the official in person.

Gattuso was sympathetic, despite the failure to heed his warning. He has been there and done worse in his playing days. “Sometimes your emotions cheat you,” he said, as well as insisting there was no formal hierarchy when it came to penalties. “The takers are Hakan Calhanoglu, Kessie, Higuaín and Rodríguez. If Kessié and Higuaín had not discussed it [on the pitch] today, nobody would be saying ‘Kessié should have taken it’.”

Cristiano Ronaldo
Cristiano Ronaldo celebrates after scoring Juventus’s second goal in the 2-0 win. Photograph: Alberto Lingria/Xinhua/Barcroft Images

This result does not undermine his team too severely. Gattuso is as aware as anyone of the gulf in talent that exists between Milan and Juventus. The Rossoneri can still feel positive about the direction they are moving in, having arrived here on the back of a seven-game unbeaten run in the league. They are just one point outside the top four.

Juventus extended the best-ever start any team has made in Serie A, moving to 34 points from 12 games. But this was a day for emotions more than calculations. Leonardo Bonucci was also facing his former club – or would have been if Massimiliano Allegri had not left him on the bench.

The context there is very different, of course. Juventus supporters, for the most part, feel warmly towards Higuaín. Bonucci, by contrast, was welcomed back at San Siro with a banner stating that “only Schettino is worse than you” – a reference to the ship captain who deserted his post after wrecking the Costa Concordia cruise liner in 2012: a disaster in which 32 people lost their lives.

Allegri insisted that Bonucci’s absence from the starting XI was only a matter of coincidence, this match arriving at a moment when he felt the player needed a rest. His choice might nevertheless have drawn more scrutiny if Higuaín had scored his penalty, or if the defender’s replacement, Benatia, had received a second yellow of his own for the handball that preceded it.

In the end, though, we are left with the same impression as ever. It is not lucidity but quality, and a little luck, that opponents will require to knock Juventus off their course.

Milan 0-2 Juventus, Sassuolo 1-1 Lazio, Chievo 2-2 Bologna, Empoli 2-1 Udinese, Roma 4-1 Sampdoria, Atalanta 4-1 Inter, Genoa 1-2 Napoli, Spal 2-2 Cagliari, Torino 1-2 Parma, Frosinone 1-1 Fiorentina

Talking points

• A goal down away from home, midway through the second-half, on a pitch every bit as sodden as you might expect for a match that had to be stopped for almost a quarter of an hour due to a downpour. Yes, Dries Mertens, Napoli really can do it on a cold, rainy day in Genoa.

• It took Giampiero Ventura all of four games (this weekend’s draw with Bologna being the first that didn’t end in defeat) to resign as manager of Chievo. As Italian journalist Giovanni Capuano observed: “Only 363 days late.”

• From seven wins in a row, to a 4-1 defeat at Atalanta in which they produced a single shot on target. The Bergamaschi have hit their stride after a tough start to the season, and Gian Piero Gasperini always seems to know how to get one over on the club that discarded him, but still, no other club swings as violently from excellent to footballing excrement as Inter. They had conceded six goals in total in their first 11 games.

• “We’d been waiting for that” – Eusebio Di Francesco delivers the understatement of the week after Patrik Schick scores his first competitive goal for Roma since April.

Pos Team P GD Pts
1 Juventus 12 17 34
2 Napoli 12 13 28
3 Inter Milan 12 12 25
4 Lazio 12 4 22
5 AC Milan 12 5 21
6 Roma 12 7 19
7 Sassuolo 12 3 19
8 Atalanta 12 9 18
9 Fiorentina 12 8 17
10 Torino 12 2 17
11 Parma 12 -3 17
12 Sampdoria 12 1 15
13 Cagliari 12 -4 14
14 Genoa 12 -12 14
15 SPAL 12 -8 13
16 Bologna 12 -7 10
17 Udinese 12 -7 9
18 Empoli 12 -9 9
19 Frosinone 12 -15 7
20 Chievo 12 -20 0

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