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Perpetually underrated Higuain back in the spotlight for Real

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MADRID -- Gonzalo Higuaín departed the Santiago Bernabéu on Saturday night carrying a white paper bag. In it was the match ball -- signed by his teammates. After all, tradition dictates and Higuaín had just scored a hat trick against Real Betis. Most had simply written "well done" or "congratulations" on the ball, or scrawled their signature. Álvaro Arbeloa, though, was different. He had written: "you're getting a bit boring now with the hat tricks."

He was joking of course. He was also right. It was Gonzalo Higuaín's second hat trick in a row for Real Madrid. Between those two, he had also scored one for Argentina as they played two matches during the international break. It was, in other words, an astonishing three hat tricks in just four games. It also made him Madrid's top scorer in La Liga -- ahead even of Cristiano Ronaldo -- and took him center stage once more. Just when he had seemed to have become the club's forgotten man.

Last season, Higuaín had scored 10 times when the clásico against Barcelona rolled round. That morning he could be seen hobbling round the team's hotel. In the end, the decision was taken not to play him because of a back problem which ended up forcing him to miss much of the season. When the season finished he had played just 17 times in the league, from 38 games.

By the time Higuaín returned to fitness in the spring, Karim Benzema had overtaken him and his chances of playing were slipping away. The Frenchman had scored some huge goals too, and out of almost nothing -- including the goal that defeated Sevilla in the Copa del Rey semifinal and the goal away in Lyon that, unusually, got the president Florentino Pérez out of his seat. And although Jose Mourinho chose not to use Benzema (or Higuaín) in the clásico series against Barcelona (they played 56 and 54 minutes in total, respectively), by the start of this season the Frenchman's position seemed even more secure.

Mourinho talked about a revival, as did the press; they talked about a new Benzema. That was an exaggeration -- he had after all, played well last season -- but he had indeed returned from the summer slimmer, faster and more aggressive than before. Either way, it added up to an obstacle for Benzema to overcome. Higuaín did not start a game until the end of September. When he did, it was because Benzema was injured. He has still started only three -- and yet he has now got eight goals. He is running at an extraordinary goal every 47 minutes.

That Higuaín returned should not come as a huge surprise. It was yet another obstacle for a player who has had to overcome so many of them.

As the Madrid media cheered him, one commentator spat that he was sick of the "pro-Higuaín lobby," exaggerating his virtues and trying to build a campaign in his favor -- one that he did not deserve and one that had ulterior motives. It was a comment so shameless, so ridiculous as to be funny. Laughable. It is striking that one of the things that Higuaín has had to overcome is the lobby, and in his case it really is a lobby, against him -- even from those who profess to be Madridistas. Not withstanding that remark and others like it, now at last the debate can be held on largely normal terms -- even if some are still quick to seek an internecine war rather than taking pleasure in having two geat strikers. It was not always thus.

In his first two seasons, 2006-07 and 2007-08 Higuaín struggled for goals. He was missing chances. It didn't matter that he had arrived midway through the season into a team that had already been constructed without him or that he was only 20 years old and had played a measly 31 professional league games in his entire career so far. No, no one wanted to make allowances. Instead, he simply attracted criticism. Madrid is a club without patience and with huge demands.

After one goal in a match in which he had wasted a string of chances, the stadium speaker announced: "and the scorer is Higuaín ... at last!".

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The stadium was the Santiago Bernabéu: his own stadium. He had been attacked by his own. It was a recurring theme and it would become far more notable. It is striking just how bitter the Higuaín-Benzema debate became. Even now, though it should be -- as the sports daily AS put it -- a "blessed problem" for Mourinho, some cling to old rancor.

Most though don't because Higuaín has won them over the hard way. It has been a long process. In the second half of 2006-07 he scored two in 19 games. In 2007-08, he scored eight in 25. And the year after that he scored an impressive 22 in thirty-four. Still some were not sure. The following season they were even less sure; the attacks became even more bitter. Florentino Perez won Madrid's became president and signed Karim Benzema for €36 million ($49M). Some appeared to think that Higuaín, signed by the former president, was somehow in the way. Virtually all of the media backed Benzema over Higuaín.

Fair enough -- after all, there's nothing wrong with thinking he is a better player and he had just arrived as one of the new galácticos. But it was not just who they chose to champion but how they chose to champion him. Higuaín built a case for inclusion -- and the stronger that case got, the more aggressive the assault upon him became. He scored 27 league goals in 2009-10; Benzema got eight -- and eight largely inconsequential goals. Higuaín even got more than Ronaldo. But rather than celebrating that fact, it was as if he had somehow done something wrong.

Higuaín's detractors said that he was greedy. They said he was not talented. And they questioned his attitude. He appeared on the TV show Punto Pelota and there were some complaints that he had been cold -- no one seemed to stop to think that, frankly, the attack that had been launched upon him from that set had been so virulent that they were fortunate he did not go on there, fists clenched, ready to settle a few scores. That far from slapping them all on the back, he would have been entitled to slap a few round the face.

As the goals came in, critics sought other arguments. When he started scoring goals that made his case watertight, they said: "aah, but which goals?" Or: "aah, but he should get more goals."

His miss against Olympique Lyon in the 2009-10 Champions League was seized upon as a stick with which to beat him in a way that contrasted with the treatment of others. Having gone round the goalkeeper he hit the post -- suddenly it was his fault that Madrid had been knocked out. Critics said that he did not do it when it really mattered. Clearly they had forgotten that he scored the goal that dramatically won Madrid the 2007-08 title in the pouring rain in Pamplona against Osasuna -- one of the club's hardest away trips. Or the decisive 94th minute, nerves-of-steel penalty against Atlético Madrid. Or the astonishing shot that gave Madrid a barely plausible 3-2 win over Getafe to keep them in with a chance of winning the 2008-09 title (they didn't).

They went for Higuaín and, worryingly for Higuaín, it was hard to avoid the feeling that there might be ulterior motives, a reason why they did so. He, though, never complained; he just kept on scoring goals. And last season, Jose Mourinho, a coach with the personality and power not only to ignore the media agenda but to shape it and the club for which he works, had little doubt. Higuaín deserved the chance. Until he fell injured he got it -- and he took it, again scoring goals.

At the start of this season, Mourinho felt that Benzema had earned the chance, which he had. Until he too got injured. Higuaín took advantage again with two hat tricks in a row. Suddenly, he was projected as Madrid's main striker again; pushed back into center stage.

With both men fit, the debate was launched: Higuaín or Benzema? Mourinho insisted that it was not a debate that concerned him, just an invention of the press. And although this was nothing compared to what it had been (despite a feeling of finality about it which bordered on the absurd), they certainly ran with it.

It was and is a worthwhile debate. Higuaín was running at a goal every 103 minutes, Benzema every 110. Higuaín had 85 in six seasons at Madrid (and 60 in 97 over the last three years); Benzema 40 in three seasons. Last year Higuaín got 10 league goals; Benzema got 15 -- but he was also decisive in the Cup and was the club's top scorer in Europe. In fact, that is where Benzema has a huge advantage: Higuaín has only scored four times in 29 European games, Benzema twenty in 34.

There are contrasting styles, too: Benzema is more technical, happier to combine; Higuaín more athletic, more comfortable on the break. It felt almost like a conceptual debate, a question of style. For Mourinho, it was even more simple: he just wanted to win. On Tuesday night Mourinho started with Benzema against Olympique Lyon. Higuaín's three hat tricks in four games did not guarantee him a place. Nor had outside influences guaranteed him one. Or guaranteed Benzema one, come to that. And that is the way it should be. Last night, Karim Benzema scored one and made another. And that is the way it should be too.