The Argentine had to be forcibly removed from the field after being shown a red card in Sunday’s defeat to Udinese, leaving the Partenopei’s title pursuit hanging in the balance
It was meant to be different this time around. A fresh champion, a new king on the Serie A throne.
Reigning Scudetto holders Juventus endured a torrid start to the season with five league defeats before the beginning of October, enabling Napoli to build an 11-point gap after just 10 matches. Surely the Old Lady would not be able to recover such a hefty deficit to claim a fifth consecutive crown?
But, unbeaten since November, Massimiliano Allegri’s Juve have won 20 of their 21 league fixtures to turn their fortunes around and build a six-point lead over the team from Naples, a quite astonishing swing.
A Valentine’s Day clash between the top two was the turning point – Juve won 1-0 thanks to a Simone Zaza strike two minutes from time – and the
Bianconeri haven’t looked back.
Much of Napoli’s success this year has been down to the goalscoring contribution of star striker Gonzalo Higuain. The former Real Madrid frontman has scored an astonishing 30 goals in 31 starts in Serie A to enable Maurizio Sarri’s side to stand alone at the summit of Italian football for the first time in 26 years.
Creative, dynamic and fluid in possession, the
Partenopei are a lethal unit on the break. Higuain’s clinical instincts in front of goal steal the headlines – he has been compared to club legend and compatriot Diego Maradona on numerous occasions this term – but he is flanked well in the final third by the likes of Jose Callejon, Marek Hamsik and Lucas Insigne.
However, following Sunday’s dramatic, tumultuous clash with Udinese at Stadio San Paolo, the Argentine attacker appears to have sealed his team’s fate for the campaign – but not in the manner he would have been planning or dreaming of earlier this season.
Already trailing the champions in the standings, Napoli were beaten 3-1 at home as Higuain was shown a red card before exploding in sensational style.
Bruno Fernandes opened the scoring from the penalty spot for Udine in the 14th minute, striking his spot-kick under the arms of stand-in goalkeeper Gabriel.
Higuain levelled the game on 28 minutes with his milestone 30th goal of a memorable season before Fernandes missed his opportunity to score his second penalty of the day.
But the Portuguese playmaker did notch his brace, as he made up for his miss from 12 yards with a stunning overhead kick to bag his fourth goal against Napoli this year and put the visitors back in front.
Cyril Thereau added another on 57 minutes, only the second time Napoli have conceded more than two goals in a league game in 2015-16, before Higuain’s meltdown.
A petulant kick out at Felipe gave referee Massimiliano Irrati no choice but to brandish the 28-year-old with a second yellow card of the day. His reaction was unsavoury at best.
Raising his hands to the ref, ‘El Pipita’ began berating his decision before having to be forcibly pulled away by his own team-mates. A complete lack of composure, the former River Plate man was uncontainable as the red mist hit home hard.
Banished from the field of play in tears, the devastated striker was visibly wrestling with his actions and their impact on the title race in his mind. Higuain may have been ushered down the tunnel kicking and screaming, but Napoli’s title hopes faded with a whimper.
Juve have steamrolled their way to the top of the table, overcoming their early season mishaps, and now look on course to lift their 32nd Scudetto come the end of May with a six point advantage in hand.
Napoli will now be forced to play their next league tie without their lethal talisman leading their attack. Already disadvantaged in terms of league points, Higuain’s loss of composure may well have blown his team’s pursuit of a first league title since the Maradona-inspired vintage of 1990.
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