Andy Mitten

Returning star Higuain gives Mourinho selection headache

Andy Mitten

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With a historical record of one win in every five
games against Real Madrid, Espanyol's fans must have known what was coming at
the weekend.

10pm on a Sunday night is no time for a game of
football to kick off, but Espanyol's biggest crowd of 2011 nevertheless
congregated in the bars on the narrow streets of the barrio close to their new
home in Cornella in fine voice. Barça fans would not have appreciated the
songs, not that these supporters of their city rivals would care.

Espanyol have been restricted to winning just four
domestic cups in their history and an appearance in the 2007 UEFA Cup final,
but they are a proud club with a loyal fan base who make a din which often puts
their bigger neighbours to shame.

They made a racket when the Real Madrid players ran
out on Sunday - the clubs share a mutual loathing of all things Barça, but
accusations of a cosy relationship between Espanyol and Madrid are wide of the
mark.

That noise continued even after Gonzalo Higuain had
given the visitors the lead in the 16th minute with a counter attack
so quick it left the home team bewildered. Kaka fed the ball to Cristiano
Ronaldo and he put Higuain through on goal; a sublime first touch gave him
space to shoot into the corner.

It is to their credit that Espanyol had played to win,
but in doing so left space for Madrid to exploit. Or should that be for Higuain
to exploit - all the more impressive since the Argentine had started just one
game since being injured a year ago and was only selected as the usual front
man because Karim Benzema was out with a thigh strain. Higuain didn't
disappoint, just as he hasn't for much of his career.

The six-foot striker moved to the Bernabeu in 2007 following
a €13 million transfer from River Plate, having played fewer than 40 first-team
games for the Buenos Aires giants. It wasn't the first time he'd been in
Europe: the son of professional footballer Jose Higuain, Gonzalo was born in
Brest, France, where his father played, in 1987. Football runs in the family -
older brother Federico plays for Colon in Argentina's top flight.

Gonzalo made his River Plate debut aged 17 in 2004 and
received lavish praise for his speed, stamina, strength and selfless running,
an attribute not always present in young players. With an impressive assist
rate, the U20 teams from France and Argentina called on his services. He
declined both before eventually settling on Argentina - the obvious choice
given that he'd left France at 10 months of age and didn't speak a word of French.
In club football, Europe's grandees showed interest, with Higuain joining
Madrid under coach Fabio Capello.

It was a struggle for him initially. After just one
season in Spain and with five and a half years left to run on his Madrid
contract, Higuain's future at the club was uncertain. Still only 20, he wasn't
given time to find his feet and the demanding crowd criticised him for his
profligacy in front of goal at a time when he needed cheers, not jeers. They
failed to see that he was being played out of position on the right wing,
contesting his place with David Beckham. The stadium's public address announcer
summed up the prevailing discontent, memorably screaming: "At long last,
Higuain has put one in!" when he eventually scored after missing two good chances
against Sevilla.

Still, Higuain won the title in his first two seasons
in Spain. He continued to improve and came good in 2008-09, especially after he
became Madrid's main striker once Ruud van Nistelrooy had left for Hamburg.
Played at the sharp end of Madrid's attack with Raul as second striker, he
scored 22 league goals. Ronaldo's arrival in 2009 only aided him - he scored 27
in 32, not as many at the Portuguese star, but more than enough.

And Higuain started the 2010-11 season in fine form as
Madrid's leading striker ahead of Karim Benzema before a herniated disc derailed
his career. Given all that has happened and that he is now the longest-serving
foreign player currently at the club, it is easy to forget that Higuain is
still only 23.

He took his chance with maturity on Sunday, adding his
and Madrid's second in the 66th minute just as Espanyol's fans had
sensed an equaliser. After again running into space, it was another beautifully
struck screamer from just inside the area. Even the Espanyol fans applauded.

They never gave up supporting their team, though they
were quietened when Jose Callejon, a player they sold to Madrid in the summer,
got a third for Jose Mourinho's side. Callejon didn't celebrate, but prayed for
forgiveness.

Higuain then got his hat-trick in the 89th
minute. By that time most Espanyol fans had seen enough of Madrid and their
brilliant goalscorer;
they drifted out on to the streets and into Monday
morning.

Higuain said that he had "needed" a game like that
after his injury as he stood smiling in the mixed zone clutching a signed matchball.

It is hard to drop a player who has just scored a
hat-trick, and with Benzema expected back for the game against Betis a week on
Saturday, Mourinho faces a difficult decision. But then Higuain has known
little but difficulty in the last 12 months.

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