It wasn't pretty, but it was a match-winner. Juventus' record signing Gonzalo Higuain has been mocked ceaselessly since joining the club, but he made his critics eat their words in Turin on Saturday evening.
In a tightly fought game against a resilient Fiorentina, the Argentina international came off the bench to snatch a 2-1 win for the Bianconeri, ensuring his new side's 2016/17 campaign got off to the best possible start.
By joining their bitter rivals, Higuain was always going to feel the wrath of Napoli fans, but his visible lack of fitness this summer had only intensified the vitriol. Arriving back for pre-season training—and in the recent friendly with West Ham United—he appeared overweight, prompting a Naples street vendor to sell the oversized version of his new shirt seen in the tweet below.
Speaking to reporters before the clash with La Viola, Juve boss Massimiliano Allegri voiced a similar opinion. “When he came here he wasn’t in great condition, but now he’s much better," the former AC Milan coach said at his pre-match press conference, with his starting XI echoing that same viewpoint.
Mario Mandzukic started alongside Paulo Dybala, with the duo continuing the excellent partnership they struck up last term. That left only a place among the substitutes for the new €90 million man, but he was in good company with Miralem Pjanic, Marko Pjaca and Medhi Benatia also among those left out.
Indeed, of the club's summer signings, only Dani Alves was given the nod by Allegri, and he repaid that faith with a solid debut. Also looking sharp were midfielders Mario Lemina and Kwadwo Asamoah, the latter in particular shrugging off two injury-plagued seasons in a stellar performance.
After 37 tense minutes, the Ghanaian star found Giorgio Chiellini who in turn swung in a dangerous cross. Sami Khedira—who had made an excellent run to catch both Federico Chiesa and Davide Astori off-guard—met it perfectly, planting the superb header shown above beyond goalkeeper Ciprian Tatarusanu.
The introduction of Cristian Tello at half-time lent much more attacking intent to Fiorentina, and the on-loan Barcelona winger got away from Alex Sandro to force a 70th-minute corner. Josip Ilicic subsequently picked out Nikola Kalinic with the resulting set piece, Juve's Brazilian defender inexplicably allowing the striker to nod home a simple header.
At that point Higuain had been on the pitch for roughly five minutes without incident but would soon have his own headline-grabbing moment. Asamoah was again heavily involved, his pass finding Khedira on the penalty spot and when his shot was deflected, the new No. 9 pounced upon the rebound.
Beating everyone to the ball, Higuain slotted a left-footed shot into the back of the net and Juventus Stadium erupted with joy. So did the team on the field. The Bianconeri saw out the remainder of the game in a professional manner, with relief perhaps the overriding emotion at the final whistle.
Supporters, players and even club management were hoping to avoid a repeat of the early form of 2015/16, the team taking until the fourth match to record a win and—speaking at his post-match press conference—the coach seemed thankful to have registered a positive result here.
"I have to thank the boys, first of all because we’ve started better than last season," Allegri said. "We played a good first half, putting Fiorentina under plenty of pressure, even if we over-elaborated things at precisely the time when we needed to put the opposition to the sword."
He went on to praise Asamoah for having "really hit the ground running," but during an earlier interview with Sky Italia (h/t Football Italia), he also discussed just what Higuain had added to the team:
He’s in better shape, just as everyone is. We have five new players and need to become a team. I am very happy with the first half. We defended in a fairly organised manner in the second half too.
When he gets half a chance, he scores a goal, as you saw tonight. And he’s not in shape yet, but above all needs to improve his understanding with his new teammates.
That Higuain struck with only his third touch of the game certainly highlighted those predatory instincts, but he also showcased a number of other facets to his play. His volume of goals last term speaks for itself, but in setting a new Serie A single-season record, some notable figures came to light.
Firstly, this maiden goal for the Bianconeri came via his left foot. According to Squawka.com, just eight of his 36 league strikes in 2015/16 were scored in that manner, while the fact it was his only shot of the game also warrants mention.
That remarkable campaign saw Higuain also lead Serie A with 5.2 efforts on goal per game, figures from WhoScored.com showing that was a staggering 1.6 per outing more than any other player. He did not even need a second chance against Fiorentina.
However, he is not simply a scorer, something he displayed succinctly with his first Juventus goal on Saturday. As it always has been, Higuain's movement and willingness to make himself available came to the fore, as the Wyscout pictures from the buildup help to explain more clearly.
The top image above shows his initial run provided an obvious target for Asamoah, but he did not receive the ball. Instead, he is used as a decoy and drags the defence across with him, allowing Khedira to move into space and collect the pass in a far more dangerous area.
Rather than admire his effort or bemoan being overlooked, Higuain remains active, opening up his body and continuing into the box. This both presented Khedira with options and confused the opposition, as can be seen in the second picture below.
Having already scored once, the German decides to shoot again, but his new team-mate knew there still might be an opportunity to be capitalised upon. Looking at the third image (below), Higuain has no right to get to the eventual rebound, both Astori and Tatarusanu are much closer to goal.
Yet he is clearly hungrier than both, accelerating quickly and beating them to the ball to open his account with the Old Lady, his instincts and desire putting him in the right place, and his technical ability delivering a neat finish.
Those aforementioned personal jibes had perhaps struck a chord, with Higuain making some pointed comments in response. Discussing his performance in a post-match interview with Mediaset Premium (h/t Juve's official website), Higuain said:
When I’m playing I try to do my best to help the team and fortunately I’ve managed to score today. I’d like to dedicate this moment to everyone who has put their faith in me.
I’ve kept calm and confident that I would score, as it was always a question of working hard and not getting carried away. Luckily the goal came and we’ve won the game, which was the most important thing.
The best reply will always be to let his goals do the talking, however, and there is one more ominous note for those rooting against Juventus. While Higuain netted a remarkable 71 times in 104 Serie A appearances for Napoli, he failed to score on the opening day in each of his three campaigns with the Partenopei.
Already one goal to the good for Juventus, he handed the club a win in a difficult Week 1 clash. The Old Lady's new man is the deadly poacher she needs to help her chase history, and the first step towards a sixth-consecutive Scudetto has been taken thanks to Gonzalo Higuain.