WITH THE EYES OF THE WORLD ON HIM in Juventus’s first leg Champions League quarter-final clash against Barcelona, Paulo Dybala did not disappoint. La Joya (The Jewel) showed everyone exactly what he’s capable of by netting a lethal brace just 22 minutes into the game.
Going into the game, the Spanish media ran rampant with the Messi-Dybala comparisons. They’re both left-footed, from Argentina and are extremely talented. What more do they need in common? In an interview with Spanish media outlet Marca, Dybala was asked about these comparisons and provided a powerful response: “People have to know that I am not Messi. I am Dybala and I want to only be Dybala, although I understand that there are comparisons.”
Throughout his entire career, the Juventus man has always been likened to a number of his compatriots. When he first arrived in Italy, Maurizio Zamparini dubbed him “the next Agüero.” As his game continued to evolve and it became clear that he didn’t play like the Manchester City man, those comparisons soon began to fade.
Now, on the other hand, that he’s performing with Juve, he’s being called the next Messi. At every turn of his career, Dybala hasn’t been allowed to just be himself and has always been dubbed as the next big thing. Well, that was until 11 April.
Dybala made his professional debut with his hometown club Instituto Atlético Central Córdoba at the age of 17 and took the league by storm. In his first season in Argentina’s second tier, the diminutive playmaker made 40 appearances, scoring 17 goals. He also became the youngest ever player to score a goal in the division, defeating the legendary Mario Kempes’ record.
After just a season with Instituto, it was clear that Dybala was destined for greatness and soon many European clubs came calling for the Argentine’s services. In the end, it was Palermo and their vast scouting network that secured Dybala in 2012 and took him from his hometown.
In the past, Palermo have had great success with developing South American talent as seen through their success with the likes of Edinson Cavani, Javier Pastore and most recently Franco Vázquez. When the 23-year-old first arrived in Italy, it wasn’t long before Palermo’s former president Maurizio Zamparini began hyping him up.
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However, his debut season was one to forget as it was marred with instability and inconsistency at the club. Zamparini, a man who is notoriously trigger-happy with his staff, fired and rehired his managers a staggering five times, creating an atmosphere of uncertainty in Sicily.
With the burden of Zamparini’s comments on his shoulders, Dybala only found the back of the net three times and never fully showcased his ability, leading many to believe that he was going to be yet another casualty of his president’s hype machine. Palermo would finish that season in 18th place, condemning them and Dybala to a season in Serie B. While their relegation looked like a setback for La Joya, it ended up proving to be a blessing in disguise.
After Gennaro Gattuso’s sacking in early September, it seemed Dybala was set for another chaotic season at the club, but the tune quickly changed when Giuseppe Iachini was appointed boss. Under the veteran tactician, Dybala found the stability he so desperately craved and was given a fresh start in Serie B.
In 30 appearances in all competitions, he would go on to score seven goals and finally began showing glimpses of his quality in Sicily, distancing claims that he was a flop. After winning promotion at the first time of asking, Dybala and co returned to Italy’s top flight with a point to prove. This time, however, the club was finally playing with a clear identity and were ready to silence their doubters.
In his third season in Italy, Dybala formed one of the league’s most fearsome duos with Franco Vázquez, spearheading Palermo’s compact 3-5-2 system. As the Argentine kept terrorising the peninsula’s best defences almost every week alongside his strike partner, the eyes of the world and Juventus in particular quickly shifted to him.
It wasn’t long before Zamparini was talking to the media every other day about Dybala, comparing him to Messi among other superstars. Luckily for the now-departed president, the Argentine international delivered on his ambitious comments. Dybala ended the season with an impressive 13 goals and 10 assists, while Palermo finished comfortably in mid-table. While it took him a few seasons, La Joya had finally shown Italy why he was dubbed ‘The Jewel’ back in his hometown.
Following his breakout season in Serie A, a number of teams inquired about Dybala, most notably Juventus and Milan. After months of some not-so-subtle negotiations, Juventus announced the signing of Dybala on a five-year deal worth €32 million plus eight in bonuses in June 2015. Upon his arrival, he was handed the number 21 shirt, previously worn by Andrea Pirlo and Zinedine Zidane. With Carlos Tevez moving on to greener pastures, Dybala was handed the reigns to the attack and thrived from day one.
After coming on for Kingsley Coman in his debut in the 2015 Supercoppa against Lazio, the youngster quickly made his presence felt. Just 10 minutes after coming onto the pitch, the Argentine scored, essentially putting the tie to bed. What better way to announce yourself to your new employers than with a goal and a trophy in your first game?
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In the months that followed, Dybala went from strength to strength for the Bianconeri and established himself as a key component in what was a new-look Juve. After getting off to a fantastic start domestically for the Turin-based giants, surpassing both Tevez and Alessandro Del Piero’s goalscoring ratios in their debut seasons, it was time for Dybala to make a name for himself in Europe.
Having drawn Bayern Munich in the last 16 of the Champions League last season, Juventus, and Dybala in particular, were raring to go. In that game, the Germans asserted their dominance early and scored two quick goals in Turin. Determined to prove their run the season before wasn’t a fluke, Juventus fought back – and that’s when Dybala notched his first goal in Europe’s elite competition. After being played in by Mario Mandžukić, he kept his cool in front of the imposing Manuel Neuer and sent him the wrong way. Juventus would add another goal to complete the comeback, with Dybala acting as the side’s main catalyst on the night.
The opportunity to complete the job, however, was taken away from Dybala as he was ruled out of the return leg due to an oedema overload to his left soleus muscle. Max Allegri’s men would eventually fall to their German counterparts and bow out of the competition in heartbreaking fashion with Dybala watching on from the sidelines.
The Argentine international finished the season with a career-high 20 goals and 10 assists in all competitions, with a Scudetto, a Coppa Italia and a Supercoppa to his name. He also made his international debut for Argentina in a World Cup qualifier against Paraguay. As his first season in Bianconero drew to a close, it was becoming clearer and clearer that Juventus had one of the world’s best talents on their hands.
With Paul Pogba leaving for Manchester United, Dybala was offered Juventus’ historic number 10 jersey for the 2016/17 season. The 23-year-old humbly declined his side’s offer as he was determined to make a name for himself with his number.
While his performances were largely fine, Dybala found goals hard to come by at the beginning of the year. In typical fashion, however, the young striker opened his account for the season with a thunderbolt from distance against Dinamo Zagreb in the Champions League. With the monkey finally off his back, the former Palermo man found his groove behind Gonzalo Higuaín and caught form as the season went on.
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With Juventus comfortably ahead of their competitors in the league, the focus shifted on Europe’s holy grail: the Champions League. After six hard-fought contests in the group stages, Juventus qualified as leaders and were drawn against Porto in the round of 16.
The Portuguese side’s indiscipline saw them get a man sent off in both fixtures, essentially sealing their fate. Juventus went on to win 3-0 on aggregate, with Dybala scoring one goal. Despite eliminating Porto comfortably, doubts still lingered over the Italians’ ability to get it done in Europe. However, there was no place to hide for Allegri and co. as they were drawn against Barcelona for the quarter-finals. What better way to demonstrate your European pedigree than against the team that beat you in the finals just two years ago?
This time around, however, only three players of that Juventus side remained. Going into the game, there was a renewed sense of optimism surrounding Juventus as they were relatively fresh for April, while Barcelona seemed vulnerable, especially at the back. With Dybala and Higuaín up top, Juventus were ready to make their mark. And make their mark they did.
Juve came out with a point to prove and pressed Barcelona off the pitch in the first five minutes. As a result, the first chance fell to Turin-based giants. After Higuaín spread the ball wide to Juan Cuadrado, the Colombian took on Jérémy Mathieu. With the Juventus winger dazzling in possession, all eyes went on him, forgetting all about a little someone inside the box.
Following a few silky stepovers, Cuadrado lifted his head and found an open Dybala. Receiving the ball in a little pocket of space among five Barça players, La Joya turned within a blink of an eye and fired a wonderfully curled effort past a helpless Marc-André ter Stegen. With a goal to his name within seven minutes, Dybala kept pushing, and it wouldn’t be long before he doubled his side’s lead.
Fifteen minutes later, Mario Mandžukić was played down the left wing into space. Like he has done so often throughout his young career, Dybala exploited a gap in the opposition’s defence and burned his compatriot Javier Mascherano for pace. Mandžukić took notice of his teammate’s run and found an onrushing Dybala completely unmarked at the top of the Spaniards’ box. Instead of taking a touch this time, however, the former Palermo man fired a first-time effort around Gerard Piqué, beating ter Stegen at his near post. Two goals and two trademark mask celebrations later, Dybala had completely stolen the show from Lionel Messi, a man he has so often been compared to in recent times.
While calcio fans have been used to Dybala’s talents for the past few seasons, it wasn’t until this game that the diminutive playmaker announced himself on the world stage. Robbed of the opportunity to do so last year in the second leg against Bayern, Dybala made the most of his side’s games against Barcelona to make a name for himself.
After a defensive masterclass in the second leg in the Camp Nou, Juventus continued their final jinx, succumbing to a powerful Real Madrid in Cardiff. However, armed with an in-form and improving Dybala finally breaking out of Messi’s shadow, the Bianconeri be every bit as strong for some years to come.
By Gregory Caltabanis @GCaltabanis