Juventus would attain "super club" status with Gonzalo Higuain deal
"Silly season" is now officially open. That is how Napoli owner Aurelio de Laurentiis reacted to reports that Juventus have laid the groundwork to take Gonzalo Higuain, Serie A's top scorer and MVP, to the J Stadium. The news late on Thursday night, that Juventus have an agreement with Higuain to sign a four-year contract that would make him the highest-paid player in Italy thanks to a €7.5 million-per-season deal, got everybody's attention.
A failure to keep the promises Napoli made him upon signing for the club three years ago is apparently why Higuain is willing to accept the offer, regardless of the allegations of betrayal it will bring from a city and a fan base that has treated him like no other player since Diego Maradona. It's now up to Juventus to strike a deal.
Higuain has a buy-out clause in his contract worth €94.5m, but it was thought it had expired at the end of last month. Although the clause is prohibitively high -- another reason for discontent among Higuain's entourage -- it is still in effect and can apparently even be paid in two installments of €47m.
Juventus will of course seek to avoid paying the full amount as they did with Miralem Pjanic earlier this summer. He had a buy-out clause worth €38m in his contract with Roma, but Juventus ended up paying less after Pjanic waived his right to 15 percent of the transfer.
To get a deal for Higuain over the line, Juventus could offer Napoli players in exchange. They were already in separate negotiations to sell Roberto Pereyra to them for €18m; a package including Daniele Rugani (unlikely), Stefano Sturaro or Rolando Mandragora and Simone Zaza would have an appeal and minimise the cash outlay.
Ultimately, Juventus have so many chips they can cash in. But would all of them be on board with it?
One of the themes of this summer in Italy has been players like Axel Witsel, Davy Klaassen, Sime Vrsaljko, Piotr Zielinski, Marko Pjaca and Gianluca Lapadula all turning Napoli down for a variety of reasons. For now, de Laurentiis is playing hard ball and if Juventus want Higuain, it looks as if they will have to pay full price. The question is obvious: how can they possibly afford to do so, particularly with Marko Pjaca also supposedly on his way from Dinamo Zagreb? And does a move like this point to the sale of Paul Pogba?
Remarkably enough the line out of Juventus is that it doesn't. So far, the wage bill has only risen by €4m this summer and the expectations are that Higuain and extensions for Pogba and Bonucci will follow. The additions of Pjanic, Dani Alves and now Mehdi Benatia (on loan with an option to buy next summer) have been offset to an extent by the exits of Alvaro Morata, Juan Cuadrado, Martin Caceres, Simone Padoin and Rubinho.
Morata's sale back to Real Madrid for €30m has covered the purchase of Pjanic. The cost of Alves (free] and Benatia is negligible (€3m for now). Meanwhile they have plenty of offers for Pereyra (€18m), Zaza (€25m from Wolfsburg) and Mario Lemina (€17m from Stoke and West Brom). If Juventus were to complete all those deals, it would mean a cool €60m for them to pay the first instalments for Higuain and Pjaca.
It's true that the Old Lady has a lot of balls in the air right now when it comes to the transfer market. But amid all the scepticism (notably outside of Italy), Juventus believe they can pull this off without losing any of their big players. Even if Pogba does go -- which, as I wrote last week, is not the intention -- the blow will have been significantly softened.
If we pause to reflect on that scenario, Juve will presumably not only have taken a world-record transfer fee for a player they signed more or less for free four years ago, but they will have weakened both their rivals for the title by luring their most decisive players to Turin. Pjanic scored 10 goals and had 12 assists in Serie A last season, while Higuain broke a single-season scoring record that had stood since 1950.
Inevitably, Juve's approach has been compared with what Bayern have been doing for years in the Bundesliga. Perhaps their imitation shouldn't come as much of a surprise when you consider how close president Andrea Agnelli and Karl Heinz Rummenigge have become: both appeared side-by-side in Milan in January to encourage talk of a European Super League.
Naturally, there is a concern about the impact the Pjanic and (possibly) Higuain deals will have on Serie A's competitive balance. Juventus now look likely to do what Lyon did in France in the early-to-mid-2000s. In 2014, you could make a case for the Old Lady losing her crown when Conte left, just as you could in 2015 when Arturo Vidal, Andrea Pirlo and Carlos Tevez moved on. Not anymore.
They're in a different league. Always one of Europe's traditional elite clubs, Juventus are now closing in on the status as a bona fide super club. Almost 10 years to the day since Calciopoli and their relegation to the second division, Juve's resurrection, particularly in the last six years, is down to almost impeccable management from top to bottom.
Imagine for a moment, if you will, the team Max Allegri could field next season. Gianluigi Buffon and the "BBC" (Leonardo Bonucci, Andrea Barzagli, Giorgio Chiellini) at the back, Alves and Alex Sandro out wide, Pogba, Pjanic and one of Claudio Marchisio or Sami Khedira in midfield and Higuain up front with Paulo Dybala.
Juventus would no longer be outsiders for the Champions League. They'd be among the genuine favourites. They believe this is their year.
James covers the Italian Serie A and European football for ESPN FC Follow him on Twitter @JamesHorncastle.