In the first half of Juventus’ Champions League game against Manchester United at the Allianz Stadium, last Wednesday Paulo Dybala appeared, just for a moment, to make time stand still.
The ball went high up into the air and as it came falling back to earth, the Juve number 10, surrounded by three United players, killed it with his left big toe – a little bit of backspin and wonderful balance bringing the ball under his spell – before weaving his way through the bodies ahead.
It brought gasps from the crowd and was a reminder, if any was needed, of just how much skill and talent ‘La Joya’, ‘The Jewel’ - as he is known in Spanish - possesses. Dybala at his best can caress and nurture a football, looking like he has some supernatural bond with it and making it do things that few others can.
Despite all that ability, however, it has felt at times during his career that there is something missing from the Argentine’s armoury, an extra little bit of steel that can transform talent into huge performances in the biggest games; a bit of determination to turn those flashes of brilliance into consistent top-level displays.
Hot and Cold
That juxtaposition of ability and effectiveness has been clear in the latter stages of the Champions League in both of the past two seasons.
In the 2017 quarter-final, he put in a man-of-the-match display, scoring two goals and outshining Lionel Messi as Juventus overcame Barcelona to win 3-0 in Turin.
In the final, however, he was utterly anonymous, barely mustering a touch of the ball as two goals from Cristiano Ronaldo propelled Real Madrid towards their second consecutive title.
Last season, the story was similar. In the last eight, it was his goal, a beautifully taken effort over the onrushing Hugo Lloris, that sealed Juve’s incredible comeback against Tottenham at Wembley and sent them through to face Real again. In the semi-final first-leg, though, the Argentine was sent off for a dive and a high foot as Ronaldo once more stole the show with an outrageous bicycle kick.
As Juventus manager, Max Allegri himself said, “You can be the best in the world, but you have to be 100% fit mentally if you want to be better than the others.”
Indeed, that strike against Tottenham was the only goal Dybala managed in his eight games in European competition last term, a meagre return for someone with his capability. He scored 24 in all competitions, but many of those efforts came against poor opposition in Serie A.
Now though, with Ronaldo by his side, Dybala may finally be ready to make that step up to the very elite level of international football. He already has four goals in the Champions League this time around, including a hat-trick against Young Boys and, more importantly on a psychological level, the winner against Manchester United at Old Trafford.
Ronaldo has reportedly been on Dybala’s case in training, constantly giving him bits of advice and even expressing frustration with the 24-year-old in an effort to draw out his full potential.
Cristiano, perhaps, even sees a little of himself in Dybala. It was around the same age, in the 2007-08 season, that the Portugal captain took the step up from being an enormously talented but inconsistent show pony to be the muscular, lethal marksman that we now know, bagging 42 goals and winning the Champions League for the first time.
Playing alongside Ronaldo in Allegri’s seemingly settled 4-4-2 and following the ex-Real Madrid man’s example in training should now provide Dybala with the platform he needs to make a similar leap. With the extra attacking threat that their newly-formed front two provides, Juve will also be confident of securing the Champions League for the first time since 1996.
Dybala has already stated his desire to win the Ballon d’Or, saying last month that, “It's a wish that I expressed when I was a boy, to improve you have to have high objectives.”
To do so he will need to channel his ability; to add a Ronaldo-esque mental edge to his undeniable dexterity.
“They are beyond normal and my objective is to be the best of the ‘humans’”, he said, comparing himself to international team-mate Lionel Messi and club colleague Ronaldo.
With their unparalleled examples to follow, though, that goal should be moving within reach.