In June 2015, midway through the sweltering Neapolitan summer, Gonzalo Higuain was considering upping sticks in search of success. He was frustrated, despondent even, and understandably so.
Napoli had lost three and drawn one of their last six matches the previous season to finish outside the Champions League places, with Higuain missing a penalty in a crucial encounter with Lazio on the final day.
In international colours, things were even worse. He had just suffered his second successive humiliation with Argentina, skying a penalty in the Copa America final shootout 12 months after that unforgettable miss against Germany in the World Cup.
Circumstances, however, were about to change. Rafa Benítez had departed the Stadio San Paolo and Maurizio Sarri was appointed in his place. According to Higuain himself, “[Sarri] took just a few minutes to convince me to remain at the club. I’ve learned from my mistakes and I want to make history at Napoli.”
The decision turned out to be inspired. It may not have been exactly the kind of history he had imagined – most right-thinking players would prefer collective success over individual accolades – but that season the former Real Madrid man bagged 36 goals in 35 league games (and 38 in total) to break Gunnar Nordahl’s 66-year-old Serie A single-season scoring record.
The following summer Higuain was sold to the champions Juventus for €90 million, but for player and coach, it had been the year of their lives. Now Chelsea have completed the loan signing of the Argentine for the rest of the season, the duo are set to be reunited.
For both Higuain and Chelsea, it is a fantastic opportunity.
The 31-year-old is unwanted at Juventus following the summer signing of Cristiano Ronaldo and endured a mediocre spell at AC Milan in the first five months of this campaign, where his heart has not always appeared 100% in it.
Being given another chance to work with the man who got so much out of him in Naples should rejuvenate and reinvigorate the centre-forward. Sarri knows that the best way to motivate him is not always with an arm around the shoulder, memorably having quipped in 2015 that “If Higuain doesn’t win the Ballon d’Or, he’s a d******d.”
And for Chelsea, given that neither of the striking options inspire great confidence, there is even more to gain. Alvaro Morata produced at a level well below what the club had hoped for before his £60 million signing in 2017 and Olivier Giroud is out of favour, so the Argentina international will fill a gaping void as the team’s spearhead.
In Chelsea’s last two league games, Sarri has deployed a front three of Willian, Pedro and Eden Hazard – a trio with an abundance of talent but no natural central attacking presence. As a result, they struggled to break down both Newcastle and Arsenal, despite having the lion’s share of possession.
When Hazard was moved to the left in the final twenty minutes of the match at the Emirates, his increase in effectiveness was clear, almost immediately putting a dangerous ball into the box.
Apart from extra firepower that he brings – obvious to anyone who has taken even the most cursory glance at Higuain’s goal-scoring record – an improvement in Hazard’s performances could perhaps be the biggest boon from the signing.
It is easy to overlook how much the Argentine contributes to the all-round functioning of his side’s attack because of his feats in front of goal, but it would be foolish to do so.
In that magnificent goal-scoring season in Naples, his influence was also felt more widely. Jose Callejon, Lorenzo Insigne and Dries Mertens, the men playing around him, scored 13, 13, and 11 times, respectively, in all competitions. Higuain also played a role in the creation of many of the chances he himself ended up putting into the net.
He combines physical robustness with back-to-goal link-up play, the ability to receive the ball on the half-turn and the intelligence to know when to release the pass for those running beyond him. Surrounded by the likes of Hazard, Willian and Pedro, he will be able to instigate some lethal combinations.
Higuain, importantly, also understands how to press from the front in Sarri’s system and has the indefatigable work ethic needed to do so, something else they lacked in the turgid performance against Arsenal.
The only real question that follows the ex-Napoli man around is about his ability to handle the pressure, and he is known to put huge amounts of pressure on himself to perform, in big knock-out games.
That, however, is not of great worry for Chelsea now. Their focus, rather than any cup competition, is on the race to get back into the top four.
With Tottenham now suffering from the losses of Harry Kane and Dele Alli to injury and Son Heung-min to the Asian Cup, Sarri’s side will be hopeful of closing the four-point gap and will be looking to fend off challenges from Manchester United and Arsenal.
They need someone to perform week in, week out in the league and for that task, Higuain is the perfect man. Add to that the fact that they will only be paying his wages and you have the makings of an excellent deal.