Why Maurizio Sarri needs Gonzalo Higuain to hit the ground running at Chelsea

In the end, the decisive goal came from the boot of a defender. After Eric Dier and Lucas Moura had failed to convert from 12 yards, it was down to David Luiz to score the winning penalty in Thursday night’s shoot-out against Tottenham Hotspur. The Brazilian made no mistake, slotting home the final spot-kick to book Chelsea’s spot in the final of the League Cup at their expense of their London rivals.

In the weeks and months to come, Maurizio Sarri will hope that Gonzalo Higuain makes the net bulge on a regular basis. The Argentinian striker arrived at Stamford Bridge on loan from Juventus last week, reuniting with the manager who brought out the best in him at Napoli. If Sarri is able to bring out the best in Higuain once more, it could be the difference between Chelsea finishing inside the top four and missing out on Champions League football for a second season on the bounce.

It feels like a long time ago now, but some saw Chelsea as title contenders after Sarri went 12 games unbeaten at the start of his Premier League career. A 3-1 reverse against Tottenham at the end of November kick-started a disappointing run for the west Londoners, who also proceeded to lose to Wolverhampton Wanderers and Leicester City before Christmas. A 0-0 draw with Southampton and 2-0 defeat by Arsenal this month means Chelsea are now just three points clear of the Gunners and Manchester United in the race for the final Champions League qualification spot.

Sarri has used Alvaro Morata, Olivier Giroud and Eden Hazard up front at different times this term, but none of the trio have sufficiently convinced him. Morata has failed to convince for most of his Chelsea career, offering very little in general play and having scored only five times in the league in 2018/19. Giroud is a better link-up striker but has never been prolific, while Hazard is not a natural false nine despite his world-class talent.

Higuain’s arrival means Chelsea now have a conventional centre-forward who Sarri trusts. The former Real Madrid marksman broke Serie A’s single-season scoring record when he plundered 36 goals for Napoli in 2015/16, before netting 32 in all competitions the following season after a move to Juventus. He did not perform quite as well last term yet still struck 23 times in Serie A, the Champions League and the Coppa Italia, although his performances for Milan in the first half of 2018/19 left a lot to be desired.

Chelsea fans will hope that his San Siro struggles were down to the team’s general inconsistencies rather than any sort of terminal decline on the part of Higuain. Although many English football fans will primarily remember the Argentinian for a series of high-profile misses for the national team, he is widely seen by supporters in Italy as one of the world’s foremost strikers. That patently has not been the case in recent months, but Higuain has a terrific track record and will surely relish the chance to line up alongside Hazard in a revamped Chelsea forward line.

The next few months will essentially serve as an audition, with the London club unlikely to make the move permanent if Higuain continues his Milan form in the Premier League. With the Europa League set to resume next month and the top-four race hotting up, Chelsea cannot really afford to give their newcomer a bedding-in period. Indeed, Sarri will need his former Napoli charge to hit the ground running, particularly as the Blues’ recent form in the Premier League have led to questions being asked of the Italian manager.

“For sure, he is one of the best strikers in my career,” Sarri said of his new signing prior to the Tottenham game. “It is up to him, I think. He has to score, first of all. I think that for a long-term contract, he has to do very well. He has to play. He has to score. He has to be useful for the team.

“Higuain usually is able to score 25 or 30 goals every season. As I told you before, in the market in January it’s very difficult to secure a very important striker. Gonzalo was in a situation that we could try to buy him, and so we decided to try for Higuain.”

Sarri will now be hoping that the Argentinian can score the goals required to help Chelsea finish in the top four and secure a return to the Champions League.

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