The Premier League, and the successes that have followed, has seen Chelsea Football Club possess some memorable strikers. Gianfranco Zola, Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, Didier Drogba, Nicolas Anelka and more recently, Diego Costa, have all earned places in the Premier League hall of fame after their respective times in royal blue.
But only one of those players – Hasselbaink – ever donned the fabled number nine beneath their iconic surnames. But Hasselbaink departed West London in 2006, and despite being followed by the likes of Drogba, Anelka and Costa, he remains the last great Chelsea no.9 (who actually wore the number nine).
That is partially because the club have burdened the likes of Meteja Kezman, Khalid Boulahrouz, Steve Sidwell and Franco Di Santo with the goalscoring responsibilities that come with possessing such a number, but you can excuse lesser-known players for struggling with such expectations. But world-class strikers, some true predators of the modern era, have also failed to impress.
Hernan Crespo, Fernando Torres, Radamel Falcao and Alvaro Morata played a combined 329 games for Chelsea, scoring just 95 goals – which seems almost unbelievable, given the goalscoring capabilities they displayed at other clubs.
Hernan Crespo, for example, was an icon at Parma. The Argentinian scored 62 goals in 112 matches for Gli Emilani. Even more prolific was Fernando Torres at Liverpool. El Ñino, in just 102 matches, scored a mesmeric 65 goals. Even Alvaro Morata netted 15 times in just 26 appearances for Real Madrid the season before he signed for The Blues. But arguably the most prolific of them all, was, and still is, Radamel Falcao. El Tigre (The Tiger) by name and by nature, the ravenous Columbian has found the net on 150 occasions in just 210 matches for Porto, Atletico Madrid and Monaco. With the exclusion of Morata, who still has many years of his career remaining to change this, the aforementioned players aren’t just credible strikers – they’re legends.
So you can’t fault Chelsea for not providing the players capable of breaking their No.9 curse. They spent almost £140M on those aforementioned strikers, yet they are still in search of that heavily-anticipated goal-machine.
Or are they?
In the week before deadline day, news broke from inside Stamford Bridge that they had completed the signing of yet another huge name from the realms of world-renown forwards. Under the recommendation Mauricio Sarri, The Blues have acquired – and presented the number nine to – Gonzalo Higuain.
With a career that has seen El Pipita play for River Plate, Real Madrid, Napoli, Juventus and AC Milan, scoring 290 goals along the way, it is fair to say they could not have signed a more accomplished attacker. There is the added bonus for Chelsea fans, that amongst his collection of goal-filled campaigns, his most successful was at Napoli, under Chelsea’s current manager.
‘Sarriball’ was a perfect fit for Higuain. He scored 36 times in 35 league matches for Napoli in 2015/16, to break the Serie A goalscoring record. Similarly amazing is that he averaged a goal every 83 minutes during that campaign. Put simply, he was uncontainable.
Three years on from that season, and with an equally successful stint at Juventus (and a forgettable loan to AC Milan) in between, and 31-year-old Gonzalo has now presented himself with a striker’s ultimate test – The Premier League. The English first division has always been a potentially reputation-crushing proving ground for the goal-getters of the world, with legendary status or ceaseless humiliation both on the line. But what will it be for Higuain?
We’ve seen Gonzalo start twice for Chelsea, in two very different games. The first, a 4-0 schooling at the hands of Bournemouth where he was unrecognisable for the 65 minutes he was on the pitch, but the second match – against Huddersfield – was superb. The interplay between himself and Hazard was, at times, was seamless. The Argentinian scored twice, with a rare second that came from outside of the area. It was hugely promising, to say the least.
But it will be his side’s coming matches that will enable us to truly tell if Higuain is capable of ending Chelsea’s number nine curse. Before the end of the month, The Blues face Manchester City twice, with one of those meetings being in the Carabao Cup final, Manchester United and Spurs. Combine those fixtures with two legs in the Europa League Round of 32 against Malmö, and it’s fair to say that both he and Mauricio Sarri will have been truly examined by the time March comes around.
It is also fair to say that this duo are more capable of bringing the best out of one another; there’s only ever been one man Sarri has wanted since he first arrived. However, potentially even more relevant than that, is the fact that you could argue that the two need one another. Of late, Mauricio Sarri’s Chelsea have slowed somewhat, a steady demise that was confirmed by that bad defeat at Bournemouth. Such a humiliating result drew heavy criticism from the Chelsea fans, which really increased the pressure on Sarri to re-find Chelsea’s form from earlier on in the season.
For Higuain, after being shunned by Juventus to make way for the immovable Cristiano Ronaldo, a difficult loan spell to AC Milan then followed. His relationship with manager Gennaro Gattuso never blossomed in the ways the pair would have wanted, which must have lead Gonzalo to believe (at the age of 31) that perhaps his days were numbered. After making just 15 appearances for La Rossoneri, Sarri threw him a vital lifeline.
It is far from being desperate times at Stamford Bridge, so Higuain is no desperate measure. He has no tough act to follow, and with Morata’s temporary move to Atletico Madrid completed in January, he has no real competition – which means no excuses, either. He is Chelsea’s main man, with a manager whose system he once thrived in.
If anyone is going to break the curse of the number nine, it looks like it could well be Gonzalo Higuain.