FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Gonzalo Higuain is hurting. The devastating loss of his mother is continuing to take a deep toll on him, impacting both his emotional and mental states on and off the field.
On Saturday night he overcame that, however, en route to giving Inter Miami a victory that the team had long been looking for.
Inter Miami picked up its first home win of 2021 and first triumph in eight games after coming from behind to beat CF Montreal by a 2-1 mark. Higuain was the man of the hour at Drv Pnk Stadium, scoring a second-half brace that not only rallied the last-placed South Florida side to three points for the first time since May 16 but also brought back into focus just how much the star striker is suffering, grieving, and healing after losing his mother to cancer back in April.
“It is going to impact me all my life. It is the biggest loss a human being can have,” said Higuain in Spanish during an emotional post-game press conference in which he looked to be on the verge of tears at certain points. “Obviously, it impacts me. We are human beings. We are not robots. I have to battle with that and try to set it aside when I am playing and training, but it is very difficult. That thought is going to be with me all my life and it is normal.
“But I think with time that I will change that pain into joy because of the moments I had with her and try to make that energy that perturbs me into a positive one because the thing she would want most is that things go well for us and to see us triumph, both me and my brother.”
— Inter Miami CF (@InterMiamiCF) August 1, 2021
On this night, the Higuains ensured that would be the case for the struggling Herons. Federico earned a penalty kick early in the second half that Gonzalo cooly converted for the Inter Miami equalizer. Then, the younger of the two siblings pounced on a loose ball in the 69th minute to fire home a hard left-footed effort from outside the penalty area that CF Montreal goalkeeper James Pantemis could not keep out.
Elation immediately ensued. Then, passion. Then, emotion.
“I felt a very strange sensation after the goals. Images of my mother came to my head,” said Gonzalo, who celebrated the win after the final whistle with his weeping father before pointing towards the sky. “I know she is watching us from up above. I dedicated this to my family, my dad who was on the field, my wife, my daughter, and honestly I am very happy. The goal is also for them because they are always supporting me and more so for my mom, who I know is watching us from above.”
The 33-year-old Higuain has been criticized plenty this season because of his effort and attitude, but from a pure statistical standpoint the fiery forward now has seven goals and two assists this season. He has directly played a part in nine of Inter Miami’s 12 goals this year. That is notable production any way you look at it.
Still, Higuain believes there is even more he can give. He just has to get better. Emotionally. Physically.
“I am still not at 100 percent,” said Higuain of his fitness. “I know there is room to improve and that is what I am trying to do. To get to that level you have to work hard, you have to rest properly, and you have to take care of yourself off the field, but I am happy because I think I am improving.”
neville’s tactical switch won the game
The bulk of the spotlight will be on Gonzalo Higuain after this one and rightfully so, but it was head coach Phil Neville’s decision to insert Blaise Matuidi for Federico Higuain that won Inter Miami the game.
Neville made the decisive substitution and tactical change in the 66th minute, bringing on Matuidi to move the team out of its customary 4-2-3-1 formation and into a 5-3-2 look. The midfield triangle that started with Federico ahead of Victor Ulloa and captain Gregore was thus inverted, with Gregore sitting deep and Ulloa and Matuidi taking up slightly more advanced positions.
The move was a stroke of genius from the Englishman, as it defensively solidified Inter Miami’s midfield while also preventing CF Montreal from building out as well as the Canadian side had prior to that. CF Montreal no longer had its preferred passing options given that the center of the park was clogged and crowded, and that left the away team confused and unable to string together the type of good attacking sequences that it had woven prior to Neville’s in-game adjustment.
Inter Miami had effectively wrestled control of the match away from the visitors, and it left their head coach, Wilfried Nancy, scrambling for answers. So much so that he looked away from the action to start moving pieces on his tactical board on the sidelines to try and come up with a solution.
Not only did Neville’s altered tactics frustrate and limit CF Montreal the rest of the way, but it also resulted in the game-winner almost immediately. With Inter Miami having more bodies in midfield, the high press instantly became more effective against the opposition and that led to the turnover high up the field that was hit home by Gonzalo Higuain.
“It meant that we got control in the center of the pitch,” said Neville of his tactical change. “…Blaise and Victor and Gregore then started to dominate the central areas and (CF Montreal) had nothing in terms of passing through us. Mihailovic — who you know I am a big fan of — did not get any of the ball and everything was in front of us. The long balls that were coming in, because we had five defenders back there, we could deal with it.”
Neville has been criticized plenty this year and during this recent winless run, but on Saturday he pushed the right buttons. At the right time. To win a game for Inter Miami with his best piece of coaching this year.
ulloa continues to quietly IMPRESS
If there is one player whose name will not pop out on the scoresheet but who has quietly impressed as of late, it is Victor Ulloa.
The central midfielder showed well again in the middle of the park, helping to both break things up while moving the ball effectively. Ulloa finished with the second-highest passing completion rate of any starter on either team on Saturday, ending with a 93.8 percent mark. He also had seven defensive interventions.
What’s more, it was Ulloa who helped spark Inter Miami’s rally with a backwards kick upfield in the 46th minute that both led to the equalizing penalty and underlined the effort, fight, and commitment to the cause that have always defined him.
Ulloa has never been one to wow with his play. He is as is said in Spanish un cumplidor, a reliable if unspectacular contributor who does a lot of the little things right. He has been doing exactly that for Neville in recent matches, delivering the type of tactically sound and smart performances that are sure to keep him in the lineup over the more talented and accomplished Matuidi.
INTER MIAMI PLAYER RATINGS
Nick Marsman (6) — Could have done a bit better on the opener, but was solid throughout the rest of the game with his distribution and sure-handed interventions.
Kelvin Leerdam (5.5) — Better defensively than in the attack, and held up well when switched from his natural fullback spot to centerback.
Nicolas Figal (6.5) — Was the most accurate passer of the starters and best defender, though he did slightly lose concentration on the CF Montreal goal.
Leandro Gonzalez Pirez (6) — Also mostly strong at the back while hitting some good switches, but should have done better at picking up Joaquin Torres on the 20th-minute tally.
Kieran Gibbs (5.5) — Had some trouble defensively but held up before being replaced in the second half due to fatigue.
Victor Ulloa (8) — Passed well, put out fires, and helped set up the equalizing penalty in his latest intelligent and sound showing.
Gregore (6) — Struggled with CF Montreal’s quick passing, but his usual combativeness was there and he helped create the winner with some good pressing.
Lewis Morgan (4) — Partially to blame for the opener and struggled to influence proceedings, though he did whip in some decent crosses.
Federico Higuain (6) — Helped connect some decent attacking sequences with his quick passes and earned the equalizing penalty by selling the contact in the box.
Robbie Robinson (5) — His lack of a left foot and scoring inefficiency stood out again, especially on the second-half miss that could have proven costly, but his pressing was key on the decisive goal.
Gonzalo Higuain (7.5) — Rallied the team with his second-half brace, converting a penalty and hitting a hard shot that proved to be the winner.
Blaise Matuidi (6) — Stayed positionally sound and disciplined while also harrying CF Montreal players with after subbing in.
Brek Shea (6) — Brought on fresh legs and defended well during his 16 minutes.
Indiana Vassilev (N/A) — Energetic but too few touches after coming on late.
Phil Neville (7) – Realized what was needed to change the match in his team’s favor, nullifying CF Montreal in the second half with a decisive formation switch and tactical adjustment that wrestled control of the game away from the visiting side.