It’s extremely unlikely we will ever see Cristiano Ronaldo playing for the same team as Lionel Messi. But Ronaldo’s transfer to Juventus last summer presented us with the next best thing: the Portuguese superman combining with Messi’s heir, the Argentina No 10-in-waiting, Paulo Dybala.
At the beginning of the season the pair posed for photos together at the Bianconeri’s training centre in Continassa. Dybala looked as pleased as punch with his new companion. The club’s fans and directors were excited by what the veteran could teach the younger man in terms of consistency, focus and preparation.
Fast forward eight months and Ronaldo is flying in Turin, with 28 goals in 42 games, and his incredible one-man-show against Atletico Madrid in the Champions League. Yet it has been a frustrating campaign for Dybala.
So much so that Italian sports paper Tuttosport is now reporting that the Old Lady are looking to rejuvenate their attacking line-up following their shock exit from the Champions League at the hands of Ajax – by selling Dybala.
Juventus are reportedly willing to cash in on star striker Dybala in order to raise funds to sign one of Joao Felix, Mauro Icardi, Federico Chiesa or Mohamed Salah this summer.
There are no problems with Ronaldo – he and Dybala get on and respect each other.
‘I am lucky, I play with Lionel for the national team and Cristiano with Juve,’ Dybala has said. ‘Not many people have had this opportunity. I have learned a lot from Ronaldo.’
They even blended their goal celebrations during the 3-0 home win over Frosinone in February. They both scored and mixed Ronaldo’s dramatic leap into the air and ‘Siiiiiiuuuuu’ (‘yessssss’) shout, and the mask gesture Dybala makes with his hand over his mouth. Dybala invited his followers on Instagram to name their new move, suggesting ‘Siuuumask’.
And most players would be relatively satisfied with Dybala’s tally of five goals so far this season in Serie A and five in Europe.
Dybala isn’t ‘most players’, however. He has struggled to make a consistent impact in 2018-19 and regularly resembles a fish out of water in coach Massimiliano Allegri’s XI.
Allegri doesn’t select Dybala for every game. Cristiano is one ‘untouchable’ in attack, Mario Mandzukic is the other. The Croatian is the epitome of a warrior, one of the hardest working players in the league, helping the defence and foraging on the wings. His sacrifice and tireless running allow Ronaldo to save his 34-year-old legs for counter-attacks or back-post sprints.
Allegri is one of world football’s finest tacticians, and his trophy-laden spell in Turin is notable for formations that get the best out of the men available. Allegri doesn’t force players into his preferred schemes, but moulds his approach around them. Seems like common sense, but so many top coaches, past and present, refuse to be so malleable.
This season 4-3-3 has been the order of the day at the Allianz Stadium. The way Juve deploy, it doesn’t contain an orthodox No 10 operating centrally behind the forwards, or a second striker. The idea is to give Ronaldo the liberty to do as he wishes, but this has cost Dybala.
The 25-year-old has been operating slightly further away from the opponent’s goal this year, which explains a drop in his league goals. After 18 starts last season he had scored 17 times. This year he has only found the net on five occasions in 22 league starts.
Dybala has ceded free-kick duties to Ronaldo, who, for the record, hasn’t been particularly impressive in that department. Dybala is a rare talent, an intoxicating dribbler, but is yet to hit the heights this campaign.
His trademark of cutting in from the right and shooting with his miraculous left foot has been all too infrequent in 2018-19. The Jewel, as Dybala is known, is too good for the bench but doesn’t have a natural role in Allegri’s current incarnation of the Bianconeri.
Regular observers of Dybala and Juve maintain that his best role is as a second striker in 4-3-1-2 or 4-4-2. But with Ronaldo, Mandzukic (who is likely to sign a new long-term contract) and emerging wonderboy Moise Kean, they are well stocked for forwards.
The wide roles in attack are less than ideal for Dybala. Journalist Filippo Conticello of the Gazzetta dello Sport says: ‘Dybala doesn’t possess the physical power of Federico Bernardeschi, and when he is selected, finds himself further and further away from the other team’s box. This was evident in the disappointing loss away to Genoa. Plus, we all know how gifted he is, but he’s not a leader.’
Dybala is unlikely to be given a decent run as the withdrawn forward in the near future, hence the rumours of a departure.
Dybala, who has appeared 18 times for Argentina, including a fruitless cameo at last summer’s World Cup, was a £23m signing from Palermo in 2015. But the view is that he could fetch three or four times that now.
In the past two decades Juventus have been willing to sell their biggest names for the right price. Barely months after winning the 1996 Champions League they sold striker Fabrizio Ravanelli and midfielder Paulo Sousa, and let captain Gianluca Vialli leave for free, reducing their wage bill significantly.
The Italian giants cashed in on Zinedine Zidane and Filippo Inzaghi in 2001, and used the profits to sign Pavel Nedved, Gianluigi Buffon, Marcelo Salas and Lilian Thuram.
More recently they sanctioned Paul Pogba’s return to Manchester United for £89m. The Frenchman was hugely popular in Turin and arguably Serie A’s best midfielder. But the wise heads at the Allianz Stadium knew they couldn’t reject such a juicy offer.
‘For a while we have known that Juve will make a big sale this summer,’ Conticello says. ‘One of the big earners will leave, to generate cash. The two names rumoured are Dybala or Miralem Pjanic. Two years ago when Dybala was in the best form of his career, Juventus would have demanded €200m (£173m) for him. Now they would accept €100m (£87m).’
For Juve fans, the notion of Dybala boarding a plane to England or Spain is a lot less painful now Ronaldo is one of theirs. He has had great times, including a goal on his debut in the 2015 Italian Super Cup, four consecutive league titles (barring an unlikely collapse this season) and three Coppa Italias. And he single-handedly knocked Barcelona out of the 2017 Champions League.
The favourites for his signature are Atletico Madrid, where he would be treated like a king, and Bayern Munich, who have recruited Latin stars Arturo Vidal and James Rodriguez in recent years. Another option is a swap with Inter striker Mauro Icardi. It’s no secret Juve are keen on Icardi, but Dybala is reportedly lukewarm to the idea of a switch to the blue and black half of Milan.
He would also be perfect for any Premier League side requiring a bit of flair in the final third. For all their searing pace in attack, Liverpool miss Philippe Coutinho’s creativity from attacking midfield, which is Dybala’s area of expertise. If Chelsea get around their transfer ban from FIFA and sell Eden Hazard, Dybala would be a good replacement, even if their styles aren’t identical.
Manchester United are ready to begin their summer transfer overhaul as they have made contact with Juventus over a swoop for Dybala, according to Calciomercato.
Dybala’s future is in his own hands. He has until the end of the season to convince Juve to keep him. Questions over his temperament and versatility remain, but the man known as The Jewel still has time to sparkle.