World Cup: Higuain ready to share Messi burden

Gonzalo Higuaín may be able to take some of the burden off Lionel Messi’s shoulders after his man-of-the-match performance helped Argentina reach their first World Cup semi-final for 24 years.
Gonzalo Higuain celebrates his goal which took Argentina into a semi-final against the Netherlands. Picture: ReutersGonzalo Higuain celebrates his goal which took Argentina into a semi-final against the Netherlands. Picture: Reuters
Gonzalo Higuain celebrates his goal which took Argentina into a semi-final against the Netherlands. Picture: Reuters

Higuaín played his best match of the tournament in the 1-0 quarter-final win over Belgium, scoring the goal, hitting the crossbar and threatening on a number of other occasions.

It was a timely response, especially as some critics such as Diego Maradona had been questioning his value to the team and highlighting the fact the 
Napoli striker had yet to score.

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Higuaín had been a doubt for the tournament as a whole after picking up an ankle injury playing club football in Italy. The 26-year-old told reporters after the game: “It’s not been an easy situation for me.

“I very nearly didn’t make it to the World Cup at all, but fortunately everything has worked out and I’ve been able to get that goal.

“People been asking me since the first day of the tournament when the goal was going to come and I’ve always given them the same answer – ‘I’m working on it’.

“But I wasn’t getting desperate – I knew I was going to get a goal sooner or later.

“Obviously I’m very happy, especially with this being such a historically important win for Argentina.”

Higuain’s performance against Belgium showed he has suffered no ill-effects from the injury, not least with one fabulous run from the halfway line at the end of which he nutmegged 
Vincent Kompany before striking a fierce shot which clipped the crossbar.

That sort of confident display will be vital for the semi-final against the 
Netherlands in Sao Paulo on Wednesday – especially if Messi continues to play in a deeper, midfield role.

Messi was still hugely effective, but he admitted the extra running came at a cost.

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“It was a different position and I had to run more than usual so I was a little tired, but we are playing as a team,” the Barcelona forward said. “We ran more than ever, even if we didn’t create as much as in the other matches.

“The important thing is that we have reached our first goal – to be among the final four.

“Now we want even more. We have enjoyed what we have done so far, but let’s focus now on what’s coming. We are prepared.”

Meanwhile, if a scan confirms Argentina midfielder Angel Di Maria is out of the World Cup it would be a significant blow to the South Americans’ hopes of winning the tournament for the third time.

Di Maria had to be replaced by Enzo Perez after half an hour of Saturday’s victory over Belgium, which set up the last-four clash against the Netherlands, when he damaged a muscle in his right thigh shooting on goal.

Media in his native country and in Spain, where he plays for Real Madrid, reported the 26-year-old would play no further part in the finals in Brazil, although there was no immediate confirmation from the Argentine soccer federation (AFE).

“Tests will be made today to assess the extent of the injury,” the AFE said on its website yesterday.

Nicknamed Fideo (Noodle) due to his slight frame, Di Maria is Argentina’s most creative player after captain Messi.

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His electric pace can carry him past and away from opponents, he links up well with Messi and the other forwards and he has an eye for goal as he proved when he netted the winner in the 1-0 win over Switzerland in the last 16.

“He’s vital, almost irreplaceable,” coach Alejandro Sabella said before the World Cup.

Should he be ruled out, Sabella will have to rely on Di Maria’s replacement in Wednesday’s starting line-up to help unlock a well-drilled Dutch defence in Sao Paulo.

He will also be hoping forward 
Sergio Aguero, who has missed Argentina’s last two matches through injury, is fit enough to make an appearance.