MADRID (Reuters) - A first reunion with Real Madrid in the Champions League final is Gonzalo Higuain’s chance to get his own back at his former club for never truly appreciating him and an opportunity to shake his reputation as a big game bottler.
The combative Argentine striker became the most expensive player ever in Italian football when he swapped Napoli for Juventus last year in an acrimonious transfer which left fans who felt betrayed burning replicas of his number nine shirt.
His 90 million euro (78.5 million pounds) price tag, meanwhile, had many observers scratching their heads at the thought of Juve paying so much for a player renowned for failing to put away the simplest of chances when it mattered most.
When a wayward header from Germany’s Toni Kroos bounced into Higuain’s path in the 2014 World Cup final, the Argentina striker raked the ball wide of the far post.
In the 2015 Copa America final against Chile Higuain slid a rolling pass from Ezequiel Lavezzi into the side netting and later ballooned his penalty over the bar in the shootout.
History repeated itself in the 2016 Copa America Centenario final with Chile when Higuain missed a third chance in a third consecutive final, collecting a third straight runners-up medal with his country.
Those misses would have chimed with Madrid supporters who remembered his crucial wasted chances in Champions League eliminations by Olympique Lyonnais and Borussia Dortmund.
Set against those mishaps were his 89th minute strike to snatch a 4-3 win from 3-1 down over Espanyol in his first season which sparked Madrid’s unlikely title win in 2007 and three prolific campaigns in which he scored more than 20 league goals.
Criticism was never far away when things did not go his way, however, and that weighed heavily on a sensitive, unpredictable character like Higuain, who quit the club in 2013 for Napoli, later admitting he cried when he left Madrid.
‘Pipita’ had a slow start to life at Juventus after his bitter departure from Napoli but enjoyed plenty of support from the ‘Old Lady‘s’ fans and hit form around the turn of the year, scoring seven times in five league games on his way to 24 goals which fired Juve to a sixth straight Serie A title.
“Juve is similar to Real Madrid, they prepare you to win,” Higuain said in February. “But the supporters are not as demanding as Madrid. It’s not in their culture to boo their own players.”
He showed his gratitude by celebrating his thumping strike at Monaco in the Champions League semi-final first leg by leaping over the advertising boards and crossing the running track behind the goal to salute the travelling fans.
His second-half goal doubled his previous count of two in 24 Champions League knockout games, putting Juventus on their way to Cardiff and ending his hoodoo in Europe’s top competition.
Now Higuain has the chance to put right his dismal record in finals, against the club that put him on the map but never called him one of their own.
Reporting by Richard Martin; editing by Ken Ferris