It is becoming increasingly rare that a transfer rumour still has the power to shock in this era of round-the-clock news, but on Thursday evening, a story broke in Italy and sent shock waves throughout the peninsula.
Media outlets across the country linked Juventus with a move for their rivals' biggest star, Gonzalo Higuain, with some incredible details emerging as the evening developed. According to Sky Italia and Mediaset (h/t Football Italia), the Bianconeri had already agreed to terms with the striker on a four-year contract.
In that same report, both insisted that the Turin giants—while hoping to include the likes of Daniele Rugani, Stefano Sturaro and Simone Zaza—were willing to pay Higuain's €94 million release clause should Napoli reject an exchange.
It is here that some confusion arises, however, as La Gazzetta dello Sport (h/t Football Italia) insists that the stipulation in the player’s contract expired on June 30, meaning that the Bianconeri would need to negotiate with Napoli.
That would likely prove to be almost impossible given the rivalry between the two clubs, but Gianluca Di Marzio believes the clause remains valid. The Italian transfer expert wrote at length about a potential deal on his own website—translated here by David Amoyal—and notes that the fee could even be paid in two annual instalments.
Such an arrangement would make a move much more palatable to Juventus, who have been extremely careful with their finances over the past five seasons, investing when they need to but always seeking out good value in the market.
The same is true of Napoli, of course, with owner Aurelio De Laurentiis steering a remarkable turnaround of the club, and he is unlikely to allow Higuain to leave without a fight. His son Edoardo told La Gazzetta dello Sport (h/t ESPN FC) that the “whole thing is a hoax” and the same Italian newspaper believes the club president is also preparing a counter offer.
According to their reporter Vincenzo D’Angelo (h/t Gazzetta World), De Laurentiis will attempt to keep Higuain at Napoli with a new contract that will pay him a staggering €7.5 million per season after tax.
Fans of the Partenopei must hope that such a deal is successful—or at least that their owner can force the Argentina international to move abroad, because losing him to Juventus would wreck the competitive balance of Serie A irreparably.
This summer has already seen the Bianconeri sign Miralem Pjanic—arguably the best player AS Roma had—and it was only Higuain’s goalscoring that made the league anything resembling a contest last term.
The 29-year-old plundered a staggering 36 goals in 35 appearances, setting a new Serie A record and helping Napoli provide a title challenge that would not exist without him. Juventus, already crowned champions in each of the last five seasons, would exert a dominance similar to that currently seen in Germany and France.
Like Bayern Munich and Paris Saint-Germain, signing Higuain would create a gap between the Bianconeri that domestic opponents could not overcome and one that would leave the rest fighting for second place.
However, that is arguably of no concern to the Old Lady, who has repeatedly made clear that her aims lie elsewhere in the immediate future as coach Massimiliano Allegri explained in a recent interview with Jtv and the club’s official website:
Winning the sixth Scudetto is our primary objective this season, as well as having a good Champions League campaign. And when I say a good Champions League campaign, I mean our objective needs to be to go as far as possible and win it. That said, we need to take it steady, work every day and lay the foundations for a great season between now and 31 August, when the campaign gets underway.
Adding a clinical striker like Higuain would help the Juve boss achieve just that, as the former Real Madrid star proved throughout 2015/16. In his history-chasing quest, he found the net with all manner of goals; headers, volleys, tap-ins and snap-shots, eventually sealing his new record with a superb overhead kick.
That rounded off a hat-trick on the final day against Frosinone, with the video shown above highlighting the diverse manner in which he amassed that incredible tally. He was helped by the team playing almost exclusively for him, Napoli coach Maurizio Sarri’s system designed to get him the ball in a position to score as often as possible.
That resulted in Higuain taking more shots than any player in Europe’s top five leagues other than Cristiano Ronaldo, his 5.2 efforts per game trailing only the Portugal star’s 6.3 according to figures taken from WhoScored.com. The Squawka graphic below shows just how deadly accurate he was with those attempts.
He scored one more league goal than the Real Madrid icon, with his nearest rival in Serie A—none other than Juve’s Paulo Dybala—managing "only" 19 league goals. It was a phenomenal return from Higuain, with Roberto Mancini perhaps giving the most succinct analysis of his impact when he spoke to the Corriere dello Sport back in December.
"In Italy, Higuain is like Messi in La Liga and the Champions League. There's him and then the rest in Serie A in his wake," the Inter Milan coach said (h/t ESPN FC). "He scores once or twice a game and can be decisive with every touch he makes."
Clearly that was the case, yet questions remain over his mental fragility and—aside from his Capocannoniere crown—Higuain still ended the season empty-handed. That stark reality brings to mind Allegri's words when his side equalled the club’s previous mark of 12 consecutive victories back in January as they continued their own Scudetto push.
"To me, records don't matter," the Livorno native told a press conference. "What's the point of winning 20 in a row if it doesn't win you the title?" Allegri asked, and that lack of silverware may yet be what drives Higuain to make this surprising move.
It would be a decision that Miralem Pjanic would sympathise with. At his official unveiling, the former Roma midfielder explained to reporters what he had already discovered about life with the Bianconeri.
"Now that I'm inside, I can see and understand why it was always difficult to get in front of them," the Bosnia international said at his first press conference. "They have the team to keep winning and improve even more. There is a difference from where I was in the past to the present."
But while this transfer would seemingly be good for both Juventus and Higuain, it would almost certainly be a devastating blow to Napoli and their supporters, who recently adapted the words of a Diego Maradona chant for their new Argentinian idol.
"Oh mamma, mamma, mamma," they sing at the Stadio San Paolo. "Do you know why my heart is beating? I’ve seen Higuaín." They might not be so welcoming if he returns there wearing the black-and-white stripes of their most bitter rivals.