Sarri hopes 'father-son' bond with Higuain can spark Chelsea revival
The sun was up by the time Gonzalo Higuain emerged from Pacha nightclub in Ibiza wearing a black bucket hat and trying to forget about a disastrous end to the season that had led to him being made a scapegoat by club and country.
It was the summer of 2015 and, despite scoring twice, Higuain had missed a crucial penalty for Napoli in their end-of-season Champions League qualification decider against Lazio before joining up with Argentina for the Copa America.
Higuain went to the tournament as Sergio Aguero's deputy and managed to score against Jamaica and Paraguay on his nation's run to the final. But after replacing Aguero as a late substitute in a 0-0 draw against Chile in normal time, Higuain again missed from the spot in the penalty shoot-out and Argentina suffered an agonising defeat.
Higuain escaped to Ibiza for a holiday, but could not leave his critics behind. When he refused a fan's request for an autograph following a night at Pacha, the response came back: "You can't even score penalties."
Rather than ignoring the jibe, Higuain flew into a rage and, as onlookers captured the moment on their camera phones, the striker was reported to have shouted back, "Delete the video or I'll rip your head off!" before being dragged away.
Higuain was clearly hurting and struggling to accept criticism, so it was a risk when, in the first meeting between the pair, Maurizio Sarri told him: "You're too lazy. If you don't change your attitude, you won't become the best centre-forward in the world."
Sarri had just left Empoli to take over at Napoli and the scathing appraisal that was delivered at a pre-season training camp in Dimaro could easily have gone the wrong way. But it became the first step towards what both men have since described as a father-son bond, even though Sarri stressed yesterday that their relationship was strictly professional.
Sarri laughed as he said: "I hope I am the football father, I don't know the mother of Gonzalo! He is suitable for my football, so the feeling is fantastic."
Aguero will be only too aware history suggests Higuain is a different animal working under Sarri before they go up against each other in Chelsea's trip to Manchester City tomorrow.
Having taken Sarri's words on board, Higuain changed his diet and lost 8lb before the season in which he scored 36 Serie A goals in 35 games and took Aguero's place for the 2016 Copa America.
Argentina again lost to Chile on penalties, but Higuain started all six of his country's games, including the final, in comparison to Aguero's solitary start. He now has a similar point to prove after a disappointing spell on loan at AC Milan, and Sarri said: "In my first season in Naples, he arrived late due to the Copa America. He missed a penalty in the last match in Serie A and he missed a penalty in the final. But he reacted very well, he was keen and had an exceptional season.
"I think he is able to react very well to difficulties. At the moment he is really keen, so I think that he can have a really good last part of the season here."
The pair may have instantly hit it off in Italy, but the straight talking did not stop as Sarri, while in charge of Napoli, declared: "If he doesn't win the Ballon d'Or in future then it'll be all his fault. He'd be a d***head."
Explaining that comment at Chelsea's Cobham training ground, Sarri said: "It was a message of confidence. I said this after the season in Naples, because that season he was the best striker in Europe.
"He needs a good relationship with the coach. Sometimes he needs a message in the press conference."
During their incredible season at Napoli together, Higuain tried to explain the chemistry between them by saying: "Sarri is like my father, he's constantly trying to make a better player. When he arrived he told me right away what he thought of me, whether it was a compliment or not, because you only grow when you learn from your mistakes.
"He is an honest man who loves teaching good football. At times for a player, dialogue can be the most important thing. I'm in good mental and physical condition."
So, Higuain's loan move to Chelsea was, in many ways, the prodigal son's return to work for his father and the two goals he scored against Huddersfield Town last week suggested they might be able to pick up where they left off.
And, just as importantly, Sarri believes Higuain could help to bring out the very best in Eden Hazard, who also netted twice against Huddersfield.
"I think he is very useful for Eden," said Sarri. "They speak the same language with the ball." (© Daily Telegraph, London)
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