The Juventus star has entered a slump at just the wrong time, as a host of young hopefuls look to steal his place in Russia and Napoli go for the title
Paulo Dybala is running out of time. Pressed to prove beyond doubt that he must form part of Argentina’s World Cup plans the Juventus star has instead fallen badly out of form, as Juve in turn suffer a miserable end to the season.
If things do not pick up in the coming weeks he can all but bid farewell to his dream of making the cut for Russia – and his club’s hopes of a seventh straight Scudetto.
Argentina coach Jorge Sampaoli laid down the gauntlet in March by leaving Dybala out of his squad to face Italy and Spain. The decision, alongside Mauro Icardi’s exclusion, was among the most controversial of Sampaoli’s short time in the Albiceleste hot-seat to date. How, with the World Cup just months away, could he afford to leave one of the nation’s hottest talents clicking his heels at home? Typically forthright, Sampaoli moved to explain his curious choice.
“We thought that he was key in the national team, but as time went by he might not have been able to adapt to our style,” the former Chile and Sevilla coach fired in a press conference prior to the Italy clash. “He is struggling to fit in. In his club, with his anarchic talent, he earns a lot of points and that has made him a star in world football.
“The ideal scenario would be for him to reach his potential: no matter how good he is, he has to play as part of the team because if not it will be tough. We have to decide if those here now are better than him or if we have to make Paulo shine.”
March’s results, a tepid 2-0 win over a ragged Italy side followed by a 6-1 humiliation at the hands of Spain, hardly confirmed the course Argentina are currently taking. But neither has Dybala picked up the challenge laid down by the coach and made his case for selection.
At the time of his exclusion Juve were top of Serie A and challenging for the Champions League. Almost two disappointing months later and Dybala has done nothing to show he can be a game-changer for either club nor country.
A fine performance against Milan and a hat-trick to take down lowly Benevento notwithstanding, Dybala has suffered a woeful run of form. The 24-year-old was an anonymous figure in Juve’s 3-0 Turin thrashing to Madrid and, to make matters worse, picked up a red card for a horrific tackle on Dani Carvajal which forced him to watch his club’s heroic comeback from the sidelines.
Against Napoli on Sunday, another must-win, he was similarly muted. Dybala touched the ball a pitiful 11 times in his 45 minutes on the pitch, completing a team-low five passes and failing to register even a single shot. Like compatriot Gonzalo Higuain he appeared frustrated and out of ideas, and was dragged out of the game at half time for the more dynamic Juan Cuadrado.
It is not the first time the playmaker has gone missing when it most counts. Dybala may trail only Ciro Immobile and Icardi in the Serie A scoring charts, with 21 goals, but that statistic does not tell the full story: 12 of those came in a blistering start to the campaign, while he has scored just six in the league since the start of 2018 and contributed one further assist. A single goal in eight Champions League matches, to take down Tottenham at Wembley during a short-lived upturn in form in March, similarly represents the poorest of returns for a player of such outrageous talents.
Dybala is no longer the centre of Juve’s universe, Turin’s answer to the indispensable Messi in Catalunya, but a frustrated appendage to a team grinding their way to the title and haunted by the irrepressible Napoli. In Argentina, meanwhile, the indignation that accompanied his exclusion back in March has faded away as new World Cup candidates continue to burst onto the scene.
It is Boca Juniors star Cristian Pavon, 22, and future Inter man Lautaro Martinez, a phenomenon at just 20, that command the headlines back in Buenos Aires. Pavon’s imperious form down the right for the Xeneize has seen him supplant even Carlos Tevez as the darling of the Bombonera, while Martinez has already scored two hat-tricks in front of Sampaoli playing for Racing in 2018 and is the all-round striker Argentina have sorely missed in recent tournaments.
Even failed Genoa winger Ricardo Centurion is making a strong case for selection with his form alongside Lautaro at Racing. Centurion has a rap sheet as long as his arm – most recently he was filmed allegedly trying to bribe a police officer in Lanus after jumping two red lights, apparently inebriated and in a school zone – but with eight goals and five assists in just 12 starts so far in 2018 his form is making him extremely hard to ignore. What that domestic trio offer above all is a set of skills and a penchant for the unexpected that the demoralised Dybala is patently failing to match.
There is time yet for Dybala, who remains one of his nation’s most exciting talents, to break out of his slump and prove his worth for both club and country. But if he cannot rediscover his early season he can kiss the Russia dream goodbye – as well as possibly the chance of retaining the Scudetto.