12 months is a long time in football. One year ago, Paulo Dybala’s Juventus career was as good as over. Having been told that the club would be entertaining offers for his services, and with Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur circling, there seemed to be only one logical outcome.
His time was up.
La Joya, the jewel of Turin, had faded. A player with such delicacy, such raw, natural ability and with so much spark that he could light a match underwater, was now viewed as dispensable to this ruthless Bianconeri machine.
Fast-forward to the summer of 2020, and the world is a very different place. Maurizio Sarri is trying to guide Juve to glory, but philosophy is failing to reach his players, perhaps obstructed by a plume of cigarette smoke.
Cristiano Ronaldo continues to make headlines with his incredible statistics, and indeed, a glance at the facts and figures of every Bianconero star would lead you to believe that the Portuguese maestro’s 28 goals are the sole reason behind their return to Serie A’s summit.
And there can be no questioning that when Juve need to come good in a clutch moment, Ronaldo is as reliable as anyone else on that pitch.
But beyond the numbers and the lofty league position, there is something so fundamentally wrong with this Juventus side. I Bianconeri are performing at similar levels to Sarri’s Chelsea at the end of his spell in west London, rather than his Napoli side, which earned acclaim from all over Europe for their dynamic and flamboyant style.
There is no creativity or drive in the midfield, the full-backs lack any real attacking quality, and the build-up play is torturously laboured.
And then, there is Dybala. Once surplus to requirements and unable to squeeze into Sarri’s strict system, the Argentine has become simply undroppable with his displays since football’s restart in June.
And surprise surprise, this upturn in form happens to coincide with a return to his favoured central role. Dybala welcomed calcio back with a goal in four consecutive matches, taking his tally to 11 for the campaign, while also notching his 10th assist.
La Joya was the standout star in this fragile Juve side, demonstrating the courage and desire to get on the ball and drive forward, taking the game to his adversary, something which Sarri so desperately craves. There can be no passengers in the Italian’s demanding system, but Dybala was able to carry two or three teammates through their duties.
And when we talk about key contributions at clutch moments, the ex-Palermo man is as vital as anyone else in the world of football. Eight of his 11 strikes have unlocked cagey matches this season, dragging Juve over the line against stubborn opposition.
They don’t just come from the penalty spot, either.
Dybala has tucked away some absolute worldies since the restart, including a wicked curling effort against Bologna, and capping off a mazy run with a neat finish in Genova. There are so many strings to the Argentine’s bow, that it has become almost impossible to find a way of stopping him.
Juve are a completely different animal with their number 10 in the side.
With Lazio breathing down Juve’s neck upon entering this mini-tournament, Sarri needed his stars to step up and provide some individual brilliance to get his faltering men over the line. And Dybala has done just that, simultaneously sticking one finger up to the men who overlooked his value less than a year ago.
The attacking midfielder’s super spell was halted through suspension, and in his absence, Juventus crumbled. A 4-2 defeat to Milan was followed by two successive draws – conceding five over the 180 minutes – raising further question marks over the Old Lady’s credentials against Europe’s elite.
Indeed, Juventus have ridden their luck to all-but claim their ninth successive Scudetto this year, and they will be grateful that the relentless Lazio suddenly fell off a cliff, and Inter underwent their usual post-Christmas collapse.
Make no mistake, though. Had there been a sterner contender, this title would probably be evading Turin. And without Dybala, there would be no Scudetto at all. But there can be no time for patting each other on the back at J Medical.
There is still so much left to play for, and plenty riding on the next two months for Sarri and his staff.
The former Napoli boss was hired to deliver European success – and in style, too. So far, his tenure has produced very little in terms of liquid football, and the same could be said for their Champions League hopes, which are hanging in the balance.
Juve should overturn their first-leg deficit against Lyon in the round of 16, and from then on, anything can happen – especially with Champions League guru Ronaldo in your side. But the tide is turning in Turin, and a new hero is stepping from the shadows to lead his team to glory – and Sarri cannot afford to leave him out again.
From having no Juventus future, to being the future of Juventus, Dybala is now I Bianconeri’s key player – and he’s ready to carry the weight of a European superpower on his shoulders.