The crowd at the Allianz Arena were practically throwing roses at Paulo Dybala’s feet as he trudged over to the sidelines for a flash interview after Juventus’ 3-0 win against Chievo on Saturday. The 23-year-old played just 40 minutes but did enough in that time for the papers to unanimously proclaim him Juventus’ Man of the Match for a fourth straight game.
Stepping in front of the cameras, Dybala modestly downplayed his impact on the game. “The team was already winning,” he pointed out to Sky Italia. “It’s just that we changed system when I came on and there were more spaces to play in.”
It was a balanced assessment from the Juventus No.10, one that not everyone shared. “Dybala should be made illegal,” his former Palermo teammate, now Chievo goalkeeper Stefano Sorrentino insisted. He didn’t stop there either, joking that opponents need three goalkeepers - one on the near post, one in the middle, and another on the far post - just to have a chance against la Joya. However, when you look at what Dybala got up to in pre-season maybe even that wouldn't be enough.
“I’ve never played against Neymar,” Chievo centre-back Alessandro Gamberini said, “but Dybala is already a top player and he’s only going to get better. Today Juve’s threat was 60 per cent him.” The long-in-the-tooth Gamberini was not exaggerating. At 36, he sure has seen a lot in football. But never a talent like Dybala.
Within 20 seconds of coming on, the Argentine - not for the first time this season - took the game over completely. Up until that point all that separated the two teams was a Përparim Hetemaj own goal. But with Dybala on the field the difference became night and day. Fumbling around in the dark until the 54th minute, it was as if Dybala flicked the switch for Juventus.
Forget being worth the ticket price alone, La Stampa’s Max Nerozzi got it spot on in when he said that fans would more than willingly pay the electricity bill at the Allianz Arena “because Dybala doesn’t play, he illuminates.” As was the case against Genoa, when Dybala came to Juventus’ rescue, overturning a two-goal deficit with the first Serie A hat-trick of his career, it's hard to pick a favourite moment from his performance at the weekend.
The goal itself - Dybala’s seventh in four games - was special, and a lot harder than it looks. But the standout piece of skill was his slithering dribble when he zigged and zagged his way through four Chievo players before one of them finally slid across his path.
There were plenty of talking points after the game, not least because it was the first time Juventus had played without a single member of the BBC [and Gigi Buffon] in more than seven years. “It was going to happen sooner or later,” Andrea Barzagli said.
Juventus also tried out a new 4-3-3 system and while the journalists in attendance debated whether the team might actually be better off sticking with the 4-2-3-1 that got the team to the Champions League final last season, Massimiliano Allegri felt they were wasting their time. Missing the point even. Allegri didn’t think any of that mattered. Tactics give you an edge, it’s true. Spacing and positioning are important. Of course they are. But ultimately, in Allegri’s opinion, players make the difference and when you have Dybala everything comes so much easier. “I’m lucky to have him,” he said.
The objective behind Juventus’ recruitment strategy this summer was to add more goals to the team with the acquisitions of Douglas Costa - “I’m a striker’s best friend” - and Federico Bernardeschi. It seems to be working. Juventus have made their most prolific start to a season since 1981. But here’s the thing. The pair have hardly played. Their newfound potency is almost entirely down to Dybala. “When Messi and Ronaldo retire, the best players in the world will be Dybala and Neymar,” Allegri promised. Isco and Kylian Mbappe deserve to be in that conversation. As does one of Allegri’s other former proteges, Paul Pogba.
To give an idea of the hype around Dybala at the moment, Sky Italia’s round-up show on Sunday night asked its panellists Beppe Bergomi, Gianluca Vialli, Leonardo and Massimo Mauro the following question: “Who is better at the moment? Messi or Dybala?" It was a deliberately provocative debate starter. No-one sided with Dybala, not even after his remarkable start to the season - and rightly so. After all, Messi has scored a brace in each of his last 10 games in La Liga.
“Messi is one of the best players in the post-war era,” Vialli said. “Dybala will never hit the heights Messi has hit,” Leonardo added. Perhaps no one will. “He’s scored more goals than he's played games, lads,” Vialli reminded his colleagues. So has Cristiano Ronaldo. And it’s maybe worth bringing the Portuguese up here because Dybala does compare, not in style or position, but in one moment in their respective careers. The manner in which Dybala has started this season is reminiscent of when Ronaldo came back from the World Cup in 2006 and kicked on at Manchester United, taking his game to an altogether different level.
Seemingly aware of that - as well as Dybala’s decision to drop his agent in recent weeks in favour of allowing his older brother to handle his affairs - Mino Raiola, sensing an opportunity to bend the player's ear, thinks that “in the end [Dybala] will leave Juve.” Dani Alves recommended he do the same and, curiously, Dybala’s brother Gustavo is working out of the same Barcelona-based agency that represents his former Juventus teammate.
“Dybala has to go to a club where there’s a project made for him and that he's at the centre of,” Raiola told La Domenica Sportiva. Juve would naturally counter that they are that club. Dybala signed a new deal and became the highest paid player at Juventus, along with Gonzalo Higuain, shortly after he put Barcelona to the sword in last year’s Champions League quarter-finals. General manager Beppe Marotta told Tuttosport in May that Juventus and Dybala have projects in common and “there is the intention to go on a long journey together.”
They see him as the heir to Alessandro Del Piero and giving him the No.10 shirt this summer was an acknowledgement of that. The fact he has raised his game since taking the responsibility has been received in some quarters as ulterior confirmation that Dybala is genuinely special. “It won’t be easy to follow in [Del Piero’s] footsteps,” Dybala said in April, “but I hope to do what he did.”
“I hope he does better,” Del Piero replied.
That’ll be hard, but nights like Tuesday’s at the Camp Nou are the kind Dybala needs to repeatedly step up in. He grabbed the world’s attention with his brace against Barcelona in April. Now it’s time to go again.