Rome (AFP) – History-making Gonzalo Higuain has declared his love for Napoli but left doubts hanging over his future as rumours persist of a possible move to the Premier League.
Higuain hit a hat-trick in a dramatic 4-0 win over relegated Frosinone on Saturday to take his league tally for the season to 36 in 35 games, in the process breaking a 66-year-old Serie A record.
AC Milan forward and Sweden legend Gunnar Nordahl’s record of 35 goals in a single, 20-team Serie A season had stood since 1950. Throughout the league’s history, the season has variously featured between 16 and 20 teams. When Nordahl scored 35 goals in 1950 it was in a period (1948-1952) of 20 teams, before the league reverted to 18 for 1952-1967.
At a packed San Paolo stadium Higuain defied torrential rain to produce an overhead kick from the edge of the area to score his record-setting 36th goal.
Higuain’s feat has revived memories of the last Argentine to steal the hearts of the Azzurri fans — Diego Maradona, who helped steer them to their two titles in 1987 and 1990.
On Sunday, it was elevated to the highest levels — one church installed a large screen to the right side of the altar to show Higuain’s goals to the congregation with the Champions League soundtrack playing in the background.
Napoli’s win also secured the runners-up spot and direct entry to the Champions League, but when asked if he would be at the club next season Higuain was coy.
“We want to think back on the extraordinary season we’ve just had. The team and the whole city deserve to soak it all up,” said Higuain.
Having joined Napoli from Real Madrid on a five-year deal worth 40 million euros ($45 million) in 2013, Higuain has relaunched his career in Italy, although the big improvements have come under coach Maurizio Sarri this season, having failed to reach the same heights when Rafa Benitez was in charge.
– ‘Immense joy’ –
When he scored his third goal on Saturday, Higuain immediately ran to hug Sarri on the touchlines.
“I want to thank Maurizio Sarri… he has helped me so much, he always told me what I had to do to improve and I always listened,” said Higuain.
“It’s difficult to comprehend but I hope it will all sink in soon. After I scored the third goal and the whole team came to hug me, I felt immense joy.”
Although Napoli missed out on winning a first title in 26 years in a season that saw the club win the highest ever number of points — 87 – Higuain’s feat and Napoli’s return to Europe’s top table has helped make amends.
Ecstatic fans showed their appreciation at the San Paolo with a rendition of a song usually reserved for Maradona.
“Oh mamma, mamma, mamma… I’ve seen Higuain.” Reports in Italy say it has not been sung at the stadium since Maradona’s time at the club, and Higuain understood the full significance.
“This season I have felt the love. I feel loved here more than I did at any other club I’ve been,” he said.
Maradona, who earlier this season blasted Sarri after a shaky start to the campaign, posted a message on Twitter which read: “Thanks guys for the satisfaction you’ve given to a city which lives and breathes football. And for this record-filled season.”
A return to the Champions League should be enough for Higuain, who was bitterly disappointed when Napoli were beaten in last summer’s play-off preliminary round by Athletic Bilbao, to stay at Napoli.
But if he decides to quit Napoli for pastures new over the summer, the love of Napoli’s fans could quickly turn to anger.
Napoli’s film producer owner Aurelio De Laurentiis, meanwhile, has moved to ward off potential suitors by reportedly slapping a 94-million euros release clause on his contract.
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