Why Gonzalo Higuain Would Be the Perfect Foil for Lionel Messi at Barcelona

Jason Pettigrove@@jaypetti1971Contributor IApril 16, 2013

MADRID, SPAIN - APRIL 03:  Gonzalo Higuain of Real Madrid celebrates his team's third goal with Sergio Ramos during the UEFA Champions League Quarter Final first leg match between Real Madrid and Galatasaray at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu on April 3, 2013 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images)
Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

If you scratch the surface at FC Barcelona, it's frightening to observe just how much the team is reliant on Lionel Messi.

The weight of expectation on that young man's shoulders is enormous and a modern day phenomenon he may be, but every genius requires a supporting cast to be just that—supportive.

Think Paris St. Germain and of the reaction to his injury in the first Champions League quarterfinal clash, and his subsequent God-like return the following week.

It was as if the world had ended for cules everywhere and the collective relief at Camp Nou was tangible when it was evident that the player would play some part in the second leg.

In goal-scoring terms this season, the record breaking Argentinian is once again in a league of one. For me however, it's not purely a lack of goals from the Barcelona forward line that is the problem. The general movement has been poor.

A basic understanding of incisive movement within play is an essential ingredient in today's game. Practised intelligently, it can often provide an immediate threat. Diligent players with the requisite nous and savvy out on the pitch are like manna from heaven for marksmen such as Messi.

When this simple, but necessary, component of intelligent interplay is undertaken correctly, opposition defenders are rendered impotent—not knowing whether to track the run or close down the space left behind.

That moment's hesitation is all it takes for top players to go about their work with devastating consequences. 

In considering who I feel might best provide the perfect foil for Lionel Messi, I've taken into account a number of factors. The right player needs to be someone with a heady mix of skill, goals, great first touch, work-rate and in-game intelligence.

Perhaps most notably, the player would need to slot seamlessly into the Barcelona "tiki taka" system. Lest we forget the failed Ibrahimovic experiment, despite the obvious qualities of the Swede.

Santos' Neymar is often talked about as a potential FC Barcelona signing and is certainly flavour of the month in Catalonia, as much for his marketability as his obvious quality; however, I believe he has much to learn and needs to steer clear of foolish comparisons with Messi.

There is no doubting the inventiveness of the young Brazilian but all too often he is far too self-indulgent, which may work in the Brazilian league but will be found out quickly at the highest level.

His ability to create a chance from nothing is commendable, and his four goals against União Barbarense recently are proof of his own prowess in front of goal. Furthermore, defenders are routinely drawn to him and then bamboozled by "Ronaldinho-esque" trickery, and this part of his game shouldn't be underplayed.

However FC Barcelona's ethos is based around hard work, the "team above all" ideal and respect for the opponent. Neymar's showboating style may wow the fans, but his lack of work rate and tracking of his opponent won't see him win any friends on the management team. For me, he remains a player of immense potential at this stage.

Manchester United's Robin Van Persie is another player that excites me, and his 20 Premier League goals in 32 appearances on his debut season at Old Trafford speaks for itself.

His awareness is second to none, and if he's not scoring goals he is creating them. Forty-nine of the 57 chances he has created have been key passes, with eight assists (via squawka.com). 

In my opinion his style is too similar to Messi, in terms of his runs off of the ball and the area of the pitch that he inhabits and does his work. As another, predominantly left-footed player, the ease with which Van Persie would dovetail with the Argentinian is compromised. 

Luis Suarez has enjoyed a stellar career at Liverpool FC and anyone who has watched him this season can be in no doubt that he is in the form of his life. Twenty-two goals and an astonishing 85 chances created are testament to the Uruguayan's value to his side.

His work rate is sensational and his improvisation in tight situations is virtually peerless. Adept in any of the striking positions and with the ability to cause havoc from all areas of the pitch, he is a nightmare for defenders and a godsend for his teammates.

Yet the person who I've picked as most likely to be the perfect foil for Lionel Messi was in the end a simple (and perhaps controversial) choice. Step forward, Gonzalo Higuain.

The Real Madrid marksman hasn't enjoyed the best of seasons at club level but "El Pipita" has an almost telepathic understanding with Messi for the Argentinian national side. Strong and direct, one might be forgiven for thinking that his style would not suit La Blaugrana.

Yet Messi himself is in no doubt:

A scorer of great goals as the following YouTube clip shows, Higuain often plays off the shoulder of the last defender and will either pull wide when necessary to create space, or time his runs to perfection, the latter generally resulting in a presentable goal scoring opportunity. 

A hard-working team player who never stops running, he offers Barcelona something different. A physicality and a presence which is perhaps missing from that team at the moment. He is a great header of the ball and possesses no little skill when the ball is on the floor. 

Revered by playing and management staff alike, I doubt you'd get any complaints from "La Pulga" if his fellow countryman were to line up alongside him.


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