Soccer - Tension mounts as Higuain braces for Napoli return

Football Soccer - Sampdoria v Juventus - Italian Serie A - Marassi stadium, Genoa, Italy - 19/03/17 - Juventus' Gonzalo Higuain reacts during the match against Sampdoria. REUTERS/Giorgio Perottino

MILAN (Reuters) - Juventus striker Gonzalo Higuain will return to Napoli on Sunday for the first time since his acrimonious departure in July, adding further fuel to the often bitter rivalry between the clubs.

The Serie A match also represents third-placed Napoli's last, faint hope of catching the championship leaders and, if that were not enough, bad feeling is still simmering after a controversial Italian Cup match between them four weeks ago.

The second leg of that semi-final tie will be played at the same San Paolo stadium the following Wednesday.

Higuain spent three seasons at Napoli where he became a crowd favourite especially after scoring a Serie A record 36 goals for them last season.

Admiration, however, turned to scorn and outright hostility when the Argentine, who still had two years to run on his contract, moved to Juventus after they agreed to pay a 90 million euro ($96.67 million) buyout clause in his contract.

When news of his move first emerged, supporters gathered in the city centre to tear up pictures of Higuain and set fire to replicas of his number nine shirt. A banner bearing his photograph was tied to a dust cart.

At Napoli games this season, vendors outside the stadium have been selling toilet rolls with Higuain's photograph on the packaging.

When Juventus and Napoli met in Serie A in Turin in October, there was an air of inevitability as Higuain scored the decisive goal in a 2-1 win for his side.

They clashed again in Turin on March 1 in the first leg of their Italian Cup semi-final and Napoli were left fuming after they had a penalty appeal turned down while their rivals were awarded two and converted both in a 3-1 win.

Even the mayor of Naples, Luigi de Magistris, joined the criticism, using the city's official website to complain that Napoli were victims of "disgrace upon disgrace".

Juventus, aiming for a sixth successive title, have dropped only two points in their last 10 Serie A matches, a run which has taken them eight points clear of AS Roma with Napoli a further two behind.

Despite security worries, Juventus will as usual stay at the 19th century Grand Hotel Parker's in the city centre which in the past has hosted English novelist Virginia Woolf, Irish playwright Oscar Wilde and members of the Bourbon and Savoy royal families, among others.

Hotel director Antonio Maiorino told local station Radio Kiss Kiss that extra security would be placed on each floor and only guests would be allowed into the hotel.

“There will be maximum security considering the nature of the event,” he said.

“We will maintain privacy and ensure the safety of our guests. We want to give an image of Naples as a hospitable place that doesn’t let itself be taken over by fanatics."

($1 = 0.9310 euros)

(Writing by Brian Homewood; Editing by Toby Davis)

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