Gonzalo Higuain maintained his goal-a-game average against Empoli on the weekend, pulling one back just five minutes after Empoli had jumped to a surprise lead and setting the table for an eventual 5-1 rout to maintain Napoli’s lead over a Juventus side that’s surged up to second in the Serie A standings.
Higuain is on track for his best season ever, and is on pace to set a new record for number of goals scored in a Serie A season. The 28-year-old, who was subbed off in the 72nd minute to a standing ovation from the home crowd against Empoli, has rightfully been the talk of the town this season: With 22 goals in 22 games, the former Real Madrid striker has found the net more often this season than Neymar, Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez, Robert Lewandowski and Cristiano Ronaldo.
If Napoli succeed in capturing their first Serie A title since another Argentine -– one Diego Armando Maradona -– fired them to the Scudetto in the 1989-90 season, Higuain will deserve much of the credit.
But Higuain would be the first to admit that his supporting cast deserves their share of the accolades for making the Blues favorites to lift the title this year. For all the talk of Real Madrid’s ‘BBC’ and Barcelona’s ‘MSN,’ the attacking trio of Higuain, Lorenzo Insigne and Jose Callejon has been among the most formidable and influential in Europe this season.
Insigne gave Napoli the lead against Empoli after Higuain equalized, while Callejon went on to score a brace. An own goal from Empoli’s Michele Camporeses rounded out Napoli’s scoring. The in-form trio has propelled Napoli on a seven-match winning streak that dates back to early December.
Manager Maurizio Sarra must also be given due credit for ironing out the flaws in an Azzurri side that always seemed to hold promise, but failed to deliver under the likes of Walter Mazzarri and Rafa Benitez. But now the veteran manager, who never played professionally himself, must steer his side through a treacherous course of games that could make or break Napoli’s Scudetto aspirations.
In the next month, Napoli will face the likes of Juventus, AC Milan, and Fiorentina. Meanwhile Juve, who’ve emerged as Napoli’s biggest rival for the title, have a much easier run in the coming weeks with matches against Genoa, Frosinone and Bologna before the Derby d’Italia with Inter at the end of the month. Inter, like Fiorentina, remain several points behind the two leaders but cannot yet be fully counted out of the title chase.
Despite leading the league on points, Napoli do have a habit of conceding goals in every match. To that end, Sarra dipped into the transfer market this week to bring in defender Vasco Regini on loan from Sampdoria. If Napoli can shore up the defense, and Higuain can maintain his stellar scoring record, it’s entirely plausible that the Naples club can claim its first title in more than a quarter century. Much will depend on the next month.