Juventus need Paulo Dybala to make world-class impact vs. Olympiakos
There had been talks of a crisis, of a Juventus side that had looked to be stripped of its essence. A team without motivation nor an identity, Juve were expected to lose or at least struggle against Napoli on Friday night. Except they didn't. The side that won six titles in a row not only won in the Stadio San Paolo by demonstrating heart, intensity and unity but because they boasted a brilliant tactician on the bench.
Serie A has so many great coaches, from Maurizio Sarri, who created the most beautiful Napoli, to Luciano Spalletti, who has guided Inter to the top of the table. However, on Friday evening, Massimiliano Allegri demonstrated why he is in charge at Juventus. A pragmatist, a realist and a man who boasts great intellect, Allegri prepared his men for the Napoli match perfectly, by exposing the weaknesses of the opponent and highlighting the strengths of his own players.
To footballing geniuses like Arrigo Sacchi, Juventus were boring and defensive but to those who appreciate sacrifice, solidity and a winning mentality that breeds the right results, Allegri proved to be a genius. Every single detail was analysed and the tactician demonstrated how easy it is to expose the limitations of Sarri's squad and style of play. Juventus may not have thrilled by playing the better football, but good football is about executing the game plan perfectly.
For the first time in a long time, Juventus looked defensively capable, flooding the midfield when they lost possession and hindering the opponent from establishing their quick passing rhythm. Juventus cared little for possession and focused only on acting as the opportunistic and predatory team that they are, standing strong and taking their chances well. That is the Juve DNA and that is what made this club the best Italy ever produced.
Napoli can have their beautiful football, Juventus have the result and a coach who understands how to navigate the tough games, proving what a marvellous strategist he is. More importantly, watching the likes of Mehdi Benatia growing, Douglas Costa contributing to both phases of the game and Blaise Matuidi showing desire on the pitch, one can only admire Allegri his own desire to continue teaching, evolving and recreating balance.
However, that Friday night result will count for little if the Bianconeri do not defeat Olympiakos in the Champions League on Tuesday evening to qualify for the next stage of the competition. While the Italians maintain their priority is to win a seventh consecutive league title, a European trophy counts for more and winning the Champions League has become an obsession.
Ideally, Juventus would have achieved qualification earlier but they have left it to the last game where a win in Greece is of the utmost importance. Likely to be without both Miralem Pjanic and Gianluigi Buffon, Allegri will have to shuffle the pack again but is likely to stick with a four man back-line.
Up front, Mario Mandzukic is available but Allegri may well find himself relying on Costa, who proved sensational against Napoli. A man who is getting to grips with what is required from Italian football, his progression is important to Juventus and for Paulo Dybala.
The young Argentina international is consistently looked upon for inspiration but he has struggled under the weight of expectation. Always expected to perform, Dybala needs help from those around him, to help inspire, drag defenders away and create space as Costa is capable of doing.
However, what Dybala desperately needs is to learn to cope with the pressure and to make the impact on a consistent basis and against the toughest of opponents. The youngster is simply too talented to not have scored a European goal since April 11 and it's up to him to prove he can block out the noise and play like the leader he's destined to become.
When all of Napoli spoke of how they would destroy Higuain, the striker came out and answered his critics on the pitch, by scoring the decisive goal. By contrast, when Dybala was faced with criticism, he faltered. Those missed penalties have clearly impacted the youngster's confidence, and while he played a generous game in the San Paolo, sacrificing for his teammates, more is expected from the Argentine. Against Olympiakos, Dybala must do what Higuain managed on Friday evening, impact the game as a world-class player would.
This is a must-win game for Juventus and the first objective to obtain. Anything other than a win against an already eliminated opponent would be considered a monumental failure and the time is now for Juve to perform to expectations.
Mina Rzouki covers Juventus and the Italian national team for ESPN FC. Follow her on Twitter: @Minarzouki.