(AFP) – Gonzalo Higuain’s failure to score at the World Cup has become a source of concern for Argentina ahead of their quarter-final showdown with Belgium in Brasilia on Saturday.
Up to now, Argentina have advanced without convincing thanks to Lionel Messi, who has contributed four goals and two assists, but even the Barcelona superstar will struggle to overcome Belgium singlehanded.
With Argentina’s other star forward, Sergio Aguero, struggling with an injury and likely to miss the Belgium game, coach Alejandro Sabella needs Higuain to rediscover his form quickly.
His relative height (6’0″, 1.84m) and physical bulk (82kg) would appear to make him the ideal foil for an Argentine attack where feet and inches are in short supply, but the reality has proven quite different.
Thus far, the Argentine supporters who have travelled to Brazil in their thousands have seen Higuain perform well below his best.
Although his entrance as a substitute in Argentina’s opening 2-1 win over Bosnia-Hercegovina changed the game and earned him a starting place, his displays against Iran, Nigeria and Switzerland were disappointing.
The legacy, perhaps, of the weeks he spent on the sidelines after injuring his ankle in early May, Higuain was slow in his movements and inaccurate in his passes.
Not only he did not score, but he contributed precious little to his side’s attacking play, particularly in the last-16 tie against the Swiss.
Criticised during his time at Real Madrid, but adored at Napoli, the man known as ‘Pipita’ is not, however, deterred by the big events.
At the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, he scored three goals in the group phase against South Korea and another against Mexico in the last 16.
“Every striker needs to score goals,” he said before the game against Switzerland in Sao Paulo.
“But he also has to help the team. I hope it (the goal) will come soon, but I’m pretty relaxed about it.”
– Eclipsed by Ronaldo –
For all his current travails, Higuain’s record of 21 goals for Argentina in only 40 international matches suggests that he is unlikely to remain dormant for long.
He played a major role in Argentina’s qualifying campaign with nine goals in 11 matches; only two fewer than top scorer Luis Suarez of Uruguay.
With Napoli, meanwhile, he has excelled, and while he will never scale the heights reached by his Argentine predecessor Diego Maradona, he has softened the blow of Edinson Cavani’s departure for Paris Saint-Germain.
Having started his career at a very young age, Higuain has accumulated the experience of a veteran despite being only 26 years old.
Born in the northwestern French city of Brest, where his father, Jorge ‘Pipa’ Higuain, played professionally, he returned to Argentina as a child and joined Club Palermo as a boy before being snapped up by River Plate.
He had only just turned 18 when he made his first appearance in the Argentine top flight and it was not long before he had attracted the attention of several leading European clubs.
After playing only 36 matches for River Plate, he joined Real Madrid in December 2006 for a reported fee of 12 million euros ($16.3 million).
Despite scoring 121 goals in 264 games in the Spanish capital, he was eclipsed by Cristiano Ronaldo and ultimately lost out in his battle for a starting berth with Karim Benzema.
But a 40 million euros transfer to Rafael Benitez’s Napoli last year offered him an escape route and he enjoyed an impressive debut campaign, finishing as Serie A’s joint-fourth-highest scorer with 17 goals and winning the Coppa Italia.
His pedigree is not in question, but having sleep-walked his way into the World Cup, Argentina desperately need Higuain to wake up in time for Belgium.