On the whole, my team predictions and player analysis has been better than average this season, however, with 28 games still left in Italy’s season I made the (gargantuan) mistake of implying Juventus had fallen too far back to defend its title, even though Juve had finished 17 points clear of the second-place team in Serie A two years in a row.
Juve promptly handed dunce hats to its doubters by reeling off 11 league wins in a row, rising from 12th to 2nd in Italy by scoring 27 goals and allowing just six in those matches, and Juve now sits two points out of first after 21 games. During that time, league leading AS Roma fired its coach after falling off a cliff (Juve gained 21 points on Roma in those 90 days).
Growing pains. There were legitimate reasons to question Juve's title aspirations: a historically bad start, its play on the field mirroring its results, and the exodus of three huge pieces of its title teams, Andrea Pirlo, Arturo Vidal and last year’s MVP in Serie A, Carlos Tevez.
Coach Massimiliano Allegri used multiple formations last year, a season that ended with only its loss to Barcelona in the Champions League final keeping Juve from claiming a treble. Allegri tried it again this year with new personnel, but he’s simplifying things during the winning streak, playing 3-5-2 almost exclusively. With several experienced leaders in the back, where Giorgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci and Andrea Barzagli protect the ageless treasure that is Gigi Buffon, whose age becomes 38 on Thursday (the keeper recently revealed he wants to play through 2018, then retire after the World Cup).
Italy after 10 games: Roma 23 points, Napoli 21, Fiorentina 21, Inter Milan 21 and Juve had 12 points (with just 11 goals scored).
The new Pogba is old once more. Paul Pogba’s steady ascension toward soccer's elite continues unabated, most recently the French star was named to UEFA’s Team of the Year and FIFA’s World XI.
Pogba feels incredibly loyal to Juventus, the club that gave him a platform to become a star, but he also realizes Juve can’t afford to keep him forever. This summer transfer speculation regarding the graceful Frenchman with boundless energy was rampant. Pogba eventually stayed and after much fanfare was given the No. 10 shirt, which seemed to include a tacit promise he would have a chance to spread his wings, getting increasingly involved in the attack and seeing more of the ball, while Juventus, in turn, was able to hold onto a player it probably would've been forced to sell.
The early returns were disastrous, as Pogba was a big part of Juve’s problem, shying away from what he does best while trying to emulate Andres Iniesta or his former teammate Pirlo, one of his heroes, this was all made worse by the fact the entire team was discombobulated.
"Too much responsibility has been placed on his shoulders, so much that a normal 22-year-old would struggle to cope,” said Allegri. “We just ask Paul to play as he knows how to, a bit more carefree, and make the mistakes a normal 22-year-old makes.”
Pogba’s found himself while following his coach’s advice, he’s still seeing far more of the ball than he did when playing beside Vidal and Pirlo, but it's happening within the construct of the team, while his defensive intensity, spontaneity and impact on games has returned, but perhaps the biggest reason the world's best young central midfielder can focus on being exactly that, is that he now has a new running mate he trusts to wreak havoc up front.
The diamond named Dybala. Juventus added several players this summer, but by far the most expensive and anticipated addition was that of Paulo Dybala, coming off a breakout season at Palermo.
Nicknamed ‘La Joya’ (the jewel), Palermo’s president claimed he’d gotten “the new Sergio Aguero” when he signed the 18-year-old Dybala from Argentina, but the youngster found tough sledding during his first two seasons in Italy. Relegated in 2012-13, Palermo won Serie B the next year to return to Serie A, with Dybala scoring just eight goals in 55 appearances, but the 5-foot-10 attacker sparkled during his third campaign, with 13 league goals and 10 assists, tying for the most assists in Serie A.
While Dybala’s talent wasn’t a secret in Argentina, or to Serie A fans, he was not a household name, and some experts were taken aback when Juve paid nearly $44 million for the 21-year-old Dybala last summer (making him the club’s fourth most expensive purchase, behind Buffon, Lilian Thuram and Pavel Nedved).
Ownership in Turin and fans alike were all hoping Dybala would eventually become a star, though few could've predicted it would happen so soon, as the charismatic Paulo has sizzled of late. During Juve’s 11-game winning streak alone, Dybala snatched eight goals and five assists, skipping right past becoming a star, Dybala already is one.
Dybala now has 12 league goals and seven assists this season (accounting for half of Juve’s 38 league goals), and if it weren’t for the incredible strike rate of his fellow Argentine at first-place Napoli, where Gonzalo Higuain has 21 goals, Dybala might be Italy’s player of the season, he still could be if the zebras roar back to collect a fifth-straight Scudetto.
Occasionally he plays up top on his own, but usually Dybala sits behind Mario Mandzukic (or Alvaro Morata). Watching the jinks and darts of this opportunistic left-footed gem you can't help but notice he plays with passion, always wants the ball and raises his game to match the stakes. He’s more quick than fast, not quite an explosive athlete, and yet his unorthodox moves constantly catch defenders off guard. A great dribbler and gifted passer, Dybala doesn’t possess immense power on his strikes, and yet he’s already scored several goals from outside the box (including one in Juve’s 3-0 Coppa Italia semifinal win over Inter on Wednesday).
With Juventus once more ascending toward its place of primacy in Serie A, this appear to be just the beginning for the precocious predator named Paulo.