Gonzalo Higuain, Real's man for all seasons

Posted by Rob Train

Jaime Reina/AFP/Getty ImagesGonzalo Higuain enjoys the better strike rate than Karim Benzema, yet he's not the first-choice option in big matches.

Before Real Madrid's Sunday night game versus Mallorca at Iberostar Estadio, Jose Mourinho told reporters that forward Gonzalo Higuain would play left back.

"[Michael] Essien, if he plays, will play in midfield," Mourinho said. "Higuain is strong, fast, he centers well, he scores goals from crosses from the touchline … so tomorrow, Higuain will be left back."

The manager was, of course, just joking with the press, displaying his irritation with persistent questions about his back four. But the thing about Higuain, as with stand-in Essien, is that he would probably give it a go if he was asked.

Since Higuain was signed from River Plate as a 19-year-old in December 2006, the Argentine forward has been nothing but a value for a bargain 12 million euro price tag – Fernando Gago arrived that year for more than 20 million, by contrast – and above all, an uncomplaining sidekick to a succession of rivals.

Ruud van Nistelrooy, at the peak of his powers, was signed the previous summer, and the Dutchman delivered both the league title and the Pichichi top scorer's trophy to the Bernabeu in his first season. Not only did Higuain have to contend with the former Manchester United striker, but there was also the institution of Raul to consider. Hardly surprising, then, that Higuain chalked up only 10 league goals in his first two seasons, making most of his appearances as a substitute.

His breakthrough season came in 2008-09, when Van Nistelrooy suffered a serious injury. Higuain was played as a support striker for Raul yet still banged in 22 league goals and showed his ability to link up play and act as provider with nine assists.

That summer, Florentino Perez returned to the Bernabeu and the second galactico era began. In came Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaka, Xabi Alonso and, to the apparent detriment of Higuain, Ligue 1's hottest property, Karim Benzema.

However, the France international was largely restricted to the bench in his first season as Higuain knocked in 27 league goals, second only to Leo Messi and more than Ronaldo. It seemed that Higuain had finally cemented his place as Real's main striker -- until December, when it was announced the forward would need surgery on a herniated lumbar disc. Higuain was sidelined until April but scored a hat trick against Valencia on his return and laid on two assists in the same game.

In his time at Real, Higuain has seen off competition from the likes of Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and Antonio Cassano and is the primary reason that the Bernabeu suits moved both Roberto Soldado and Alvaro Negredo. Higuain has outlasted Raul, survived the systematic Perez cull of players signed during the unfortunately named Ramon Calderon era, and managed to stay on the right side of firebrand coaches Fabio Capello, Bernd Schuster and Mourinho himself.

So the question presents itself: Why does Higuain start only the turkey shoots?

Last season he scored 22 in the league to Benzema's 21, but the Frenchman scored seven in Europe to Higuain's three. This season, the Argentine has started six league games to Benzema's one, scoring six goals to the Frenchman's one. Benzema, meanwhile, has been entrusted with leading the line in the "big" games, against Barcelona, Ajax and Dortmund. Higuain started against Manchester City, but Benzema's performance in that match probably tipped the balance in the mind of Mourinho.

Against Mallorca, Higuain showed that he can fit in with the fizzing forward play exercised by Ronaldo, Di Maria et al, and chipped in with two goals, including the nerve-settling opener on eight minutes. Sunday's score line suggests that a cakewalk in the Balearics is the norm for Real, but the Blancos really don't enjoy the trip to the Iberostar.

In the same fixture last season, Higuain came off the bench with his side 1-0 down to turn the game around. He scored the equalizer and then, with his determination to win the ball back in the opposing final third, allowed Jose Callejon to bag the winner. In that match, both Benzema and Higuain ended the game on the field, a rare sight indeed at Real.

Mourinho's favored formation leaves room only for one striker at a time, and it seems, although he has denied it, that the Portuguese is going to trust the league mop-up matches to the Argentine and the bigger dates to the Frenchman.

It will be interesting to see who starts against Dortmund next week – the mercurial Benzema, who has two in the Champions League, or Mr. Reliable Higuain, who enjoys the better strike rate.

Either way, even more interesting to see will be who gives way if Real succeeds in signing Radamel Falcao, either in January or next summer. Reports in the Spanish press suggest that the Bernabeu hierarchy sees Benzema as more expendable than the man for all seasons, Higuain, who is well used to quietly working in the shadow of others.

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