It’s 11 April 2017 and Juventus are lining up against Barcelona for their leg at home in the Champions League quarter finals.
Coming off their famous ‘La Remontada’ 6-1 victory over Paris Saint-Germain, La Blaugrana were viewed as the most potent team in the world. Their famed ‘MSN’ front trio of Lionel Messi, Luis Suárez and Neymar were all in form, while their opponents had laboured past Porto in the last 16.
Yet by the end of the night, the Catalans were the goalless team, with their stars only mustering two shots on target as a collective. Instead, the man who drew the headlines for his match-winning turn was Paulo Dybala.
It only took him seven minutes to impact the game. With Juan Cuadrado picking him out in the box, the forward took one touch to control the ball, swivelled on his right foot and curled the ball past the outstretched dive of Marc-André ter Stegen to put La Vecchia Signora in front.
Not long after, the Argentine peeled off unmarked to receive Mario Mandžukić’s cross, and swept in a first time finish that arrowed past the German goalkeeper and beat him at his near post.
In the space of 15 minutes, Dybala had single-handedly dismantled Barça’s defence and announced himself on the world stage as an elite player who should be considered among the very best attackers in the game.
His performance was a masterclass in how to play the second striker role, and it was very much in the mould of a classic trequartista display you’d see from the likes of Roberto Baggio and Michel Platini back in their heyday.
This was the forward was at his very best. Floating around freely in dangerous positions, his intelligent movement meant he never gave his markers any time to settle, and showed off his terrific finishing ability in front of goal.
Yet beyond those goals, there’s a lot more to the Argentine’s game that isn’t shown in the highlight clips. Quick with the ball, he’s always a threat on the break, and his elite vision and technique makes him equally capable of creating chances for others, as well as scoring himself.
It shouldn’t be forgotten either that he’s a tireless worker on the defensive end too. Indeed, former Bianconeri manager Massimiliano Allegri even thought of using Dybala as a mezzala and a tuttocampista during his time in charge, demonstrating how he’s not only able to play across the frontline, but in midfield as well.
But there’s not a lot the 26-year-old can’t do at the attacking end, which has made him one of the most exciting players in the world to watch.
The first time many had heard of the attacker’s name was when Palermo signed him for €9m in 2012, with then-president Maurizio Zamparini proudly proclaiming him to be ‘the new Sergio Agüero’ in the team’s announcement.
Little was known about the teenager at the time, other than his single record-breaking season with his hometown club Instituto AC Córdoba – where he netted 17 times in his 40 appearances.
Initially struggling in his first two years, it was in his third campaign with the Rosanero that made him a name to watch in Italy. His 13 goals and 10 assists were pivotal to their top-flight mid-table finish, after gaining promotion from Serie B in 2014.
It was enough to convince Juventus that the forward was the real deal and worth paying €32m (£23.4m) for the following summer. Such was their confidence in his talent that they assigned him the number 21 jersey, which was previously worn by club legend Andrea Pirlo. No pressure at all.
Coming on as a substitute in the Supercoppa Italiana for his debut, he needed just 13 minutes to get off the mark for his new team. Unmarked and lurking near the penalty spot, he pounced on Paul Pogba’s pass and lashed the ball into the net with his lethal left-foot, giving Lazio’s Federico Marchetti no chance to save the powerful effort.
The goal helped to seal the trophy for La Vecchia Signora and instantly endeared him to the club’s passionate supporters, who could see the potential for the 21-year-old to become a superstar of Italian football.
Since that very first game, Dybala’s gone from strength to strength, continuing to prove his doubters wrong and instilling himself as the heart of the team’s attack through his consistent performances. While he has at times suffered a loss of form, he’s always been able to rebound from those setbacks and elevate his game to even higher levels.
This was particularly shown in the aftermath of his disappointing 2018/19 campaign. Having scored at least 19 goals in each of his first three years in Turin, he then mustered up just 10 goals and two assists in all competitions.
Granted, Allegri had shunted him out to the right wing throughout the season, but there were doubts concerning his fit with Cristiano Ronaldo, as well as his ability to contribute on a consistent basis. Rumours then swirled that the club were ready to part ways with him, offering him up to the likes of Tottenham and Manchester United.
Yet the Argentine never expressed any interest in leaving and was determined to bounce back, especially with the incoming arrival of Maurizio Sarri as the Italian champions’ next manager. Despite being left out at the start, he fought his way back into the first team, returning to form in his preferred central role again – and has rarely been left out since.
With CR7 now deployed on the left wing, it’s given the 26-year-old the freedom to effectively orchestrate the Bianconeri’s attack. His selfless nature means he’s willing to feed his teammate at every opportunity, as demonstrated by his assist for the Portuguese star’s second goal against Lazio in their most recent Serie A victory.
But he’s also more than capable of running the show himself. His darting runs through the opposition’s midfield in counter-attacks and his ability to weave his way past his markers’ tackles means he’ll always draw eyeballs whenever he’s on the pitch, carrying a swagger in his playing style.
He’s truly someone who can score from anywhere on the field. Whether it’s a long-range volley or a curling side-footed free-kick, teams cannot afford to allow the Argentine to have any space with the ball in the final third. He’s a dangerous threat that players would love to have on their side – and also one they’d be uneasy defending against.
It’s a testament to Dybala’s mentality that he’s been able to bounce back from every setback he’s faced in his career up to now. Now the attacking star who turns La Vecchia Signora’s frontline into a dangerous one, he’s finally getting the attention and platform to show off all of his talents for a global audience.
As the team look to continue their domestic dominance while also pushing for continental titles, expect the 26-year-old to continue playing a key role in their future successes.