Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have done wonderful things in football. They have inspired a generation of young wannabes and exhilarated a generation of lucky fans with their performances over the last decade or so. They have broken records and competed against each other, pushing one another to greater heights.
However, they have also been somewhat unhelpful. Every attacker on the verge of reaching the highest echelons of the game will now be measured against their impossible standards. This is the problem Paulo Dybala has to solve.
The 24-year-old has intoxicated Italian football with his displays over the last three years. After promising with Palermo, he has established himself as Juventus’ key man. Since breaking out, he has hit a remarkable 59 goals in 120 Serie A games. But he still languishes in the intimidating shadow cast by twin icons.
In 399 La Liga appearances, Messi has 364 goals, which averages out to 0.9 goals per game. Ronaldo, meanwhile, has hit 355 goals in 378 games taking into account his time at Real Madrid and his last three years with Manchester United, also averaging 0.9 goals per game during this period.
Dybala’s goals per game rate doesn’t quite compare, but it may start to at some point in the near future. He is shining in Serie A this term, none more so than when Juventus faced Sassuolo.
DYBALA DOWNS SASSUOLO
Juventus travelled to face Sassuolo on earlier in the season and collected a routine three points. They won 3-1 and, despite a few shaky moments, dominated much of the match. However, within the routine, Dybala put in a sublime individual performance.
On 16 minutes, the reigning Italian champions set off down the left flank in a bid to open the scoring. The hard-working Mario Mandžukić played the ball, rather innocuously it must be said, infield. No immediate danger seemed apparent until Dybala ran onto the ball and curled it first time into the far right corner of the home side’s net.
The Argentine doubled Juve’s lead early in the second half with a finish of true ingenuity. Receiving the ball just inside the Sassuolo penalty area with one defender directly in front of him and five others surrounding him, he somehow found the bottom right corner of the net with a simplistic yet stunning toe-poked effort.
Dybala then sealed the win for his side when, just 12 minutes after they had conceded, he stepped up to curl home a free-kick that left opposition goalkeeper Andrea Consigli helpless and restored a two-goal advantage. Not only had the lithe attacker completed a hat-trick, but he had compiled the finest array of strikes likely to be seen from one player, in one match, anywhere this season.
The first goal demonstrated his timing and judgement, running on to a moving ball at exactly the right moment; the second showed his vision and innovative capabilities; the third goal confirmed his technical quality and precision.
1. 25-yard stunner 👏
2. Ronaldinho-esque 🔥
3. Free-kick 💥
Paulo Dybala just scored a stunning hat-trick for Juventus on BT Sport! ⚽️⚽️⚽️ pic.twitter.com/9E39zcFkba
— Football on BT Sport (@btsportfootball) September 17, 2017
DYBALA’S GROWING INFLUENCE
Following his hat-trick against Sassuolo, Dybala was surprisingly restrained. “I am very happy,” he told the press. “I wanted to score one and three came along.”
Others were more lavish in their assessments. For instance, his coach, Massimiliano Allegri, said that: “He is improving in all aspects of the game. He is very young and has much room for improvement…He needs to keep playing with just two touches. When he plays like that he is unstoppable.”
Meanwhile, his team-mate Blaise Matuidi simply stated: “He is a world-class player.”
Sassuolo winger Matteo Politano was blown away by Dybala’s individual display. “When you come up against players like him, it is hard to win points,” the Italian said post-match. “His movements were what hit me, he sees the game ten hours before all of us.”
Before the season began it was announced that the Argentine would be wearing Juventus’ No.10 shirt going forward. The number comes with a great historic weight to bear courtesy of the legends it has previously adorned, such as Alessandro Del Piero, Roberto Baggio, Michel Platini and Omar Sivori.
But, rather than appear shackled by the pressure, Dybala has actually found a new level of productivity. He scored both of his team’s goals in the Supercoppa defeat to Lazio; hit the second in Juve’s opening game against Cagliari; grabbed a hat-trick away to Genoa; and found the net once at home to Chievo.
HOW FAR IS HE FROM MESSI AND RONALDO?
The Messi/Ronaldo dynamic has dominated football discussion for many years, but it is not unreasonable to suggest this may change in future. Dybala is at the forefront of players hoping to enter the debate, and his numbers this season suggest he may be edging closer to his esteemed peers with every passing week.
His status at Juventus is confirmed: along with the goals, only three of his team-mates create more chances on average, and none of them complete more dribbles. Indeed, no player in the whole of Serie A can better his 3.5 dribbles per game, while only two players – Ciro Immobile and Edin Džeko – attempt more shots.
Having gone from being the best attacker in his own team to the best in the country, the next stage will be to conquer the continent. In the longer term this will prove tricky, but Dybala is doing a fine job this season.
Last season, Dybala attempted nowhere near as many shots on average as Messi and Ronaldo. And, while his shot accuracy was one per cent higher than the latter, it was ten per cent below the former. Unsurprisingly, he scored far fewer goals per game than the La Liga duo.
However, in other areas he competed with his more established rivals. He completed a higher percentage of his passes and dribbles, while he passed more, created more and completed more dribbles than Ronaldo.
As impressive as his numbers were last term, and as exciting as his goals tally is at this early stage of the 2017/18 campaign, Dybala has to do other, less quantifiable things to reach the next level. His international performance and showings in “big” games will no doubt be two vital factors in this respect.
For Argentina, the presence of Messi may always stand in his way. Both are left-footed attackers who like to cut in from the right, don’t operate as natural strikers and create almost as much as they take. So far the Juventus man has failed to score in ten international outings, and he may never have an obvious place in the team as long as his legendary compatriot is still playing.
When it comes to big games, many will point to his poor showing in last season’s Champions League final as a bad example. He failed to get in the game, never mind score, while Ronaldo found the net twice to lead Real Madrid to a comprehensive 4-1 victory.
However, on the way to that very final Dybala essentially knocked out Messi’s Barcelona with a superb performance in the home leg of their quarter-final clash with Juventus. He scored twice to help seal a 3-0 win that secured a semi-final berth.
In terms of performance level, the 24-year-old is probably only a matter of seasons away from joining Messi and Ronaldo atop football’s highest platform. However, by that time the history-making duet may be nearing the end of their careers – the former will be 32 years of age; the latter 34.
With that in mind, Dybala may never be seen as a true competitor. Simply put, he belongs to the next generation. His greatness may not be defined by rivalling Messi and Ronaldo, but in succeeding them, and that's why rumours linking him to Manchester United should really excited Red Devils fans.