The stakes couldn’t have been higher in Monte Carlo on Wednesday night. Max Allegri, in keeping with the town’s casino laden area, took a massive gamble as Juventus travelled to Monaco for their first leg Champions League semi-final. The speedy Juan Cuadrado was dropped in favor of defensive veteran Andrea Barzagli with Dani Alves playing higher up the field on the right wing. It was a move which looked to counter Monaco’s quick and athletic attackers by placing further emphasis on Juventus’ physical and strong defence. The risk paid off as Juve left France with a huge victory that places them as strong favourites for their second final in three years.
Wednesday night’s victory was typical of the Bianconeri in this year’s Champions League: Win the first leg by a couple of goals, either home or away, and keep a clean sheet. Just look at how the Porto and Barcelona ties went down. Juventus have created a blueprint for success in Europe, and though it may not satisfy the neutral’s thirst for attacking football, they are only too happy to keep with such a working system. In three encounters they have managed to keep the likes of Andre Silva, Luis Suarez, Lionel Messi, Neymar, Kylian Mbappe, Radamel Falcao, etc., at bay. Neither have enjoyed competing with that ferocious Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini inspired- defence. The back five have done their job so well throughout this competition; so too have the offensive players.
But until Wednesday night, there was one individual who had yet to leave his mark.
Gonzalo Higuain was signed for €90 million for nights like this one. With an open defence and slow centre-backs offering much space for Juve to attack into, the Argentinian was expected to put Monaco to the sword.
The only problem with that idea was the lack of faith in Higuain’s ability to finish any chances which fell his way. It was a justified concern. Higuain hadn’t scored against either Porto or Barcelona in the knockout rounds, while his only two goals from open play in the group stage came against Dinamo Zagreb. Not exactly a brilliant foundation for the former Real Madrid striker to build on ahead of the latter, and more nervy, stages.
A great amount of responsibility was placed on Higuain in such a big game. Where he so often failed the past, last night he succeeded. And with his two goals came the biggest win of the season.
Rio de Janeiro was the venue and 2014 was the year. The World Cup was the prize as Argentina and Germany battled it out in the final. The game itself wasn’t exactly a spectacle, but chances fell for both sides. For Argentina, one of them landed to Higuain. The one-on-one opportunity he was presented with, alas, flashed wide, not even troubling Manuel Neuer. The following year was a disastrous Copa America final versus Chile where a near-open-goal miss in injury time was only topped by a scuffed penalty in a shootout. Last summer in yet another Copa America final with Chile, it was only the goalkeeper in his way but still, Higuain managed to miss the target. Chile won for the second year running, and ‘El Pipita’ was fast becoming a parody of himself in big matches.
Wednesday night, however, he may have finally bucked the trend.
Despite starting off poorly, missing a couple of half-chances and even falling over as the ball was travelling to him outside the area, Higuain was determined not to be defined by his past failures. When Dani Alves’ sublime trickery opened up space for Higuain, the striker was only too happy to rocket his shot into the back of the net. Juventus had a pivotal away goal and the “big-game choker” Higuain was the one who scored it. His elation was obvious, and his relief evident. In the second half, Alves again found Higuain, this time with a succulent cross which landed right where he wanted it to, and added his second of the night. A double for Higuain and a double away goal salvo for Juventus.
Not bad for a player that supposedly can’t contribute when it matters most.
In the return leg, chances may be rare for Higuain to build on his goalscoring momentum. Juve are likely to sit back and soak up pressure before hitting Monaco on the counter. Allegri is unlikely to push too many players forward, in fear of the opposition’s lethal offense, which may hinder Higuain’s opportunities. But that won’t affect the narrative coming out of last night’s game. The football world was waiting for Higuain to arrive in the big moments and he finally did. It couldn’t have happened at a better time for Juventus who, thanks to his goals, are a step closer to having a bigger game to play in Cardiff in June.