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Napoli’s free-scoring, unbeaten start to the season has suggested that the departure of prolific forward Gonzalo Higuain, viewed as a crushing blow at the time, could have been a blessing in disguise.
Maurizio Sarri’s team have blasted 20 goals in their first eight games this season and turned on the style again on Wednesday as they thumped Portuguese champions Benfica, also previously unbeaten, 4-2 in the Champions League.
Higuain scored a Serie A record of 36 goals as he led Napoli to second place last season but the club reluctantly let him go when Juventus triggered a 90 million euro ($100.96 million) buyout clause in his contract.
Napoli fans were furious at the time and even on Wednesday night, toilet rolls were being sold outside the San Paolo stadium with Higuain’s photograph on the packaging.
But on the field, Napoli’s football has been flowing and, rather than depending on one player, the goals have been shared between Arkadiusz Milik (seven), Jose Callejon (five), Dries Mertens (four), Marek Hamsik (three) and Manolo Gabbiadini (one).
“We have changed a few things in the final 25 metres of the pitch, partly to respect the characteristics of our central forwards who are different to Higuain,” said Sarri. “The wide players have also changed their role.”
It may be for the better.
For all his goals and ruthless finishing, Higuain, an out-and-out striker who can safely be described as an old-fashioned number nine, gives the impression of being a difficult team mate.
There was often a sense that Napoli’s players always felt obliged to pass to him, an idea reinforced by his angry reactions when they failed to do so.
He also has a reputation for cracking under pressure, most notably when he missed a penalty against Lazio two seasons ago which could have taken Napoli into the Champions League.
Over at Juventus, Higuain has scored five goals this season but while he has continued to flourish, Paulo Dybala, excellent last season, has struggled to get into gear, finally getting off the mark against Dinamo Zagreb on Tuesday.
Napoli, second in Serie A with 14 points, one behind leaders Juventus, visit Atalanta on Sunday with Sarri urging them to continue in the same vein as during the first hour against Benfica.
“I hope that from tomorrow the players realise they have to deal with the daily reality,” he said. “There is the risk that we could play less aggressively in the next game and we absolutely cannot afford that. I hope the team is mature enough to realise that.”