Neymar might be the subject of multiple transfer bids this summer, but the general consensus around the Camp Nou is that the inappropriately sarcastic Brazilian superstar will be staying in Catalunya. The reason is simple: He is in line to succeed Lionel Messi as the King of Barcelona.
However, the lineage of Messi’s royalty is not entirely straightforward. There’s another precocious forward who is waiting in the wings to wear the Argentine’s crown – his fellow countryman Paulo Dybala.
The Juventus sensation will steadfastly disavow any claims that he will ascend to his countryman’s level. “People have to understand that I’m not Messi,” he recently said. “I’m Dybala. I want to be me, not the new Messi.”
Well, Dybala may be his own man, but based on his performance against Barcelona in a convincing 3-0 Champions League victory in Turin on Tuesday night, he is destined for greatness.
Paulo Dybala's game by numbers vs. Barcelona:
22 passes completed
2 shots on target
2 tackles won
Match-winning display. ???? pic.twitter.com/2Nhy7vVh6c
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) April 11, 2017
An evening that should have exclusively been about the beautiful game began with the troubling news of the abandonment of Borussia Dortmund’s match with Monaco. As Dortmund defender Marc Bartra was taken to a hospital some 600 miles north of Turin, his former Barcelona teammates prepared to build upon the greatest Champions League comeback of all time, hoping for a similar outcome against the Italians to that of Barca’s 2015 final victory over Juve.
Barcelona needed to improve its record of losing two of its previous three away games in the Champions League. The Catalans needed to bounce back from a weekend defeat that may ultimately cost them a shot at the Liga title.
Sadly for them, Juventus was unwilling to acquiesce to the Barca bounce-back narrative from the outset.
To be clear, this game was never destined to be a 0-0 stalemate. Juventus took a cavalier approach by fielding its four most dangerous attacking weapons: Gonzalo Higuain, Mario Mandzukic, Juan Cuadrado and Dybala.
Barca, meanwhile, also set up to find the net with a nimble back three, with Sergi Roberto on the right flank joining the potent trident of Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar.
But it was the home side who drew first blood, with Dybala putting the Old Lady ahead with less than seven minutes on the clock. Playing the ball down the right channel – a common theme for the evening – Cuadrado picked out the Argentine in the penalty box with four Barcelona players surrounding him. But none of them were anywhere near close enough to prevent him turning for a classy finish past Marc-Andre Der Stegen.
— Benjamin Robertson (@AwNawHellNaw) April 11, 2017
In the movements following the goal, Juventus lowered its terrifying intensity to allow the visitors back in. With 20 minutes on the clock, Andres Iniesta was gifted a one-on-one situation with Gigi Buffon (thanks to an out-of-this-world through ball from Messi) forcing a superb save from the 39-year-old talisman.
— JMichael (@m1897) April 11, 2017
Buffon celebrated as if he had scored, and Juventus fans didn’t have to wait long to erupt for their team’s second goal of the evening.
Just 76 seconds after Iniesta was denied, Dybala again found himself completely unmarked in the Barcelona penalty area as Mandzukic cut the ball back to him. An excellent one-touch finish followed.
— Ali (@TvvitterGod1) April 11, 2017
In the first half, Barcelona’s defending made Arsenal’s backline against Crystal Palace on Monday look like an impenetrable brick wall by comparison. But while the Blaugrana’s defensive fortitude deserved to be lambasted, full credit had to be given to Messi’s unwilling heir apparent Dybala, who did nothing to damage his reputation as a young man who can rise to the big occasions.
In recent weeks, a debate has formed about which player will be the first to command a transfer fee equivalent to £100m. According to a popular betting company, Dybala is the fourth-most likely star to break that nine-figure threshold, with Chelsea, Real Madrid and Barcelona rumored to be in hot pursuit.
After Tuesday evening’s performance, the odds on that £100m move may have shifted even further into the former Palermo forward’s favor.
The second half began as frantically as the first, with Messi placing a long-distance shot inches past the post before Neymar and Iniesta suffered similar off-target efforts.
But it didn’t take long for Juve to resume domination, with Higuain missing several opportunities to widen the home side’s lead. (What is it about Higuain missing opportunities in big games featuring Lionel Messi?)
The Serie A leaders’ third goal came in the 55th minute, as Barcelona failed to remember a key passage from “Defending Corners 101” – always mark the big man closely. Javier Mascherano generously allowed Giorgio Chiellini to land a powerful header from distance.
— Juventus Venezuela (@Juventus_VEN) April 11, 2017
???????? A week in the life of Giorgio Chiellini…
???? – Graduates with a masters degree for Business Administration
⚽ – scores vs. Barça pic.twitter.com/k6VFd6zX1e
— FourFourTweet (@FourFourTweet) April 11, 2017
After his failure to deal with Dybala’s second and Chiellini’s header, it seems fair to say that this game won’t make Mascherano’s highlight reel.
Also, it would be remiss to neglect the fact that Chiellini’s World Cup “friend” – Luis Suarez – was guarding the post for that set piece. If he hadn’t completely abandoned that position, the Italian defender might not have scored his first Champions League goal since 2009.
— ⚫Pinturicchio⚪ (@juvegalaxy) April 11, 2017
Suarez poked wide in the 67th minute and Neymar had a shot suspiciously blocked by Chiellini’s arm shortly thereafter. But no matter how hard they huffed and puffed, the Catalans couldn’t blow the Old Lady’s house down. They were completely contained by Juve for most of the game, and that vital away goal ultimately eluded them.
Before the match, legendary Italian manager Arrigo Sacchi insisted Juventus is better than Barcelona. Perhaps the Spaniards are merely setting themselves up for another epic second-leg comeback, but based on the evidence of this game, Sacchi is entirely correct.