Higuain picks his moment to step up
BRASILIA, Brazil -- For once, Lionel Messi was happy enough to let someone else assume the limelight. He had even fluffed his lines with a last-minute shot too close to Belgium's Thibaut Courtois. Instead, Argentina's progress to their first World Cup semifinal since 1990 was secured by Gonzalo Higuain, one of those previously standing accused of not doing enough to assist Messi.
The Napoli striker's goal was hit first time, its speed and direction giving no hope to Courtois, perhaps this tournament's best goalkeeper. It did not look like the type of strike that Higuain was capable of in any of Argentina's previous four matches. Instead, he will lead the line in his country's first appearance in the final four for 24 long years, where greats like Gabriel Batistuta and Hernan Crespo were never able to tread.
"A striker wants a goal," admitted Higuain. "What's more beautiful than doing it today?"
The Argentina fans who celebrated with primal screams all shared those sentiments. Higuain, his goal coming on eight minutes, played thereafter with a belief that had been so lacking against Bosnia-Herzegovina, Iran, Nigeria and Switzerland.
A second-half shot against the crossbar that had coach Alejandro Sabella almost collapsing to the floor followed Higuain blazing through four Belgian opponents, with the last being a nutmeg of Vincent Kompany, no less.
Sabella had been forced to heavily defend Higuain after his performance against Switzerland in Sao Paulo, even resorting to listing the distance-covered stats that Messi himself has proved to be inane.
"Besides running and assisting and cooperating, he scored a goal that was vital for our strikers," said the coach, making reference to the fact that Higuain's strike, in Argentina's fifth match, was the first by a forward other than Messi. With Angel Di Maria, Messi's usual able lieutenant, pulling up with a thigh injury that renders him a doubt for the rest of the World Cup, the pressure on Higuain and Ezequiel Lavezzi, also much improved in Brasilia, will intensify. A World Cup semifinal is no place to hide.
Higuain's arrival in this tournament has been belated yet timely, especially as Messi only had true sighters at goal -- a first-half free kick chance, and that last-seconds miss. The little genius' job in Brasilia was to pull players away to create opportunities for others. Argentina's decisive moment came from just such a source. Belgians were attracted to Messi like bees to honey, and Di Maria's pass -- via a deflection -- found its way to a highly responsive Higuain.
"I could see that the ball was coming my way, and I managed to hit it sweetly at the most important moment," said Higuain. "I was calm, cool and collected."
"I was working to score the goal and it finally happened," he continued, though that later thrash against the bar hardly defined either of the adjectives he had selected for himself. Nevertheless, this was a huge improvement; Argentina, still to beat an opponent by more than one clear goal, hugely need a striker who believes in himself.
Perhaps Higuain is having his World Cup in reverse to that he enjoyed then endured in 2010. He began his South African campaign with a hat trick against South Korea which was a study in the poacher's art -- none of his goals came from further than 10 yards. Next came a decisive goal against Mexico. All this came at a time Messi just could not hit the target, but then, as a result of Diego Maradona's novel idea of playing just one defensive midfielder against Germany, Higuain failed to continue that run of form, as Argentina exited embarrassingly via 4-0 defeat in Cape Town.
His star has fallen somewhat since then. He had been considered surplus to Real Madrid's requirements, and cashed in at Napoli. The price of 40 million euros was high, and he has since been productive for Rafa Benitez's team, but the usual way is down from the Bernabeu. It's a place for which Higuain clearly retains deep residual feelings, considering his warm words towards ailing countryman and Real godhead Alfredo Di Stefano, who suffered a heart attack on Saturday.
"Alfredo was always very close to me," said Higuain. "I have very great respect, and I feel for him, and I hope he will recover. I only have words of gratitude for him."
Di Stefano is recalled as among the game's finest ever, the greatest player of a Spanish giant but who could not speak of a single World Cup minute to to his name -- he travelled as a naturalised Spaniard to Chile in 1962, only to miss out through injury. Comparisons with Messi are perhaps more pertinent than to Maradona, but for Argentina's current genius to surpass his compatriot's achievements, he needs men like Higuain to help.
Brasilia, and Higuain's vital goal, took them both a step closer to global glory.