‘The New Messi’ – The feared label seems to plague every promising left-footed forward and Paulo Dybala tops that extensive list at the moment.
It’s a term he’s openly denounced in the past and has done so again in the aftermath of a scintillating performance that helped Juventus sink Lionel Messi’s Barcelona on Tuesday night.
“I understand the comparisons and expectations on me but I do not want to be the new Messi or the Messi of the future.”
The 23-year-old can distance himself from the unwanted tag all he wants but it will always rear its ugly head, especially when he insists on playing the way he did in the 3-0 Champions League quarter-final victory.
The comparisons with Messi aren’t completely unjustified. After all, they’re both Argentinian, left-footed and ridiculously gifted players. But Dybala is his own player, relying more on his velvet touch, clinical finishing and intelligence.
Given Juventus’ triumph, the appealing narrative is that Messi’s eventual decline (which is still years away one would suspect) gives way to Dybala’s rise to prominence. But the five-time Ballon d’Or winner was not played off the park on Tuesday and neither were Barcelona.
In fact, the Catalans did have moments to reduce the deficit and Messi was at the heart of it. At 1-0, he produced a through ball that cut straight through Juventus’ midfield and defensive lines only for Gianluigi Buffon to produce a brilliant save to deny Andres Iniesta.
While some may misconstrue Dybala’s dominating display against Barcelona as further evidence that he is indeed The New Messi, it should instead point to a coming of age for the Juventus ace, the night he established himself as a truly world class player and one we can expect to be thrilled by for years to come.
Lionel Messi literally puts it on a plate with salt and pepper, and his teammates still miss... pic.twitter.com/tkUkqcSaVy— infosmessi (@INFOSMESSl) April 11, 2017
The Ballon d’Or has been won by either Cristiano Ronaldo or Messi for the last nine years (Messi winning five times and Ronaldo four) with Kaka being the last recipient apart from that twosome, back in 2007.
The iconic rivalry between two of the best players to ever grace a football pitch has defined the modern era of the game with the third nominee acting as little more than a prop for photo ops.
But all good things must come to an end and so must this phenomenal duopoly over the most prestigious individual prize in football.
Boasting an exceptional record at club and international level, Neymar has already staked his claim to call one of those golden globes his own one day as has Antoine Griezmann but in Dybala they will encounter a fierce competitor.
The Argentine signed for Palermo in 2012 and after proving his mettle at the Serie A side, it was club President Maurizio Zamparini who first declared: “He’s the new Leo Messi!”
Pogba last yr: "I call Dybala 'Square R2'. That’s the combination u press on PlayStation to do a turn and shot. He always scores like that.”— Paolo Bandini (@Paolo_Bandini) April 11, 2017
In Turin, Dybala has grown into an outstanding performer, scoring 23 times last season and already notching up 16 so far in this campaign.
He’s regularly shown flashes of brilliance but his two clever finishes on Tuesday, on such a big stage against top class opposition showed the pedigree of a supreme talent eager to assume more responsibility and take over the mantle as the team’s talisman.
While he is not a direct replacement for 29-year-old Messi, when the Barcelona legend eventually rides off into the sunset, Dybala will be a front-runner to assume the throne in Argentinian football.
Chelsea, Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich. Not a bad collection of teams. In fact, nobody other than those four heavyweights has lifted the Champions League trophy since Internazionale in 2010.
But staying on the subject of that competition, do you know what else they have in common?
The eyebrow-raising answer is that they have all failed to score in a knockout tie at Atletico Madrid’s Vicente Calderon stadium in the last three years.
Indeed, it is more than three years since ANY visiting player has succeeded in netting a single goal at Atletico’s atmospheric home in a European knockout tie, a sequence which dates back eight-and-a-half games and encompasses nearly 800 minutes of action.
The last visiting player to score at the Vicente Calderon in a knockout tie was Kaka, who netted for AC Milan in the 27th minute of their last sixteen meeting on 11 March 2014 (but even that didn’t count for much, with Atletico going on to win 5-1 on aggregate).
Since then, Atletico’s results in home knockout clashes have been as follows: 1-0 vs Barcelona; 0-0 vs Chelsea; 1-0 vs Bayer Leverkusen; 0-0 vs Real Madrid; 0-0 vs PSV; 2-0 vs Barcelona; 1-0 vs Bayern Munich; 0-0 vs Bayer Leverkusen.
Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Robert Lewandowski – not to mention Demba Ba, Luuk de Jong and Javier Hernandez – have all attempted to breach Atletico’s defences on big European nights in the last few years, but none have succeeded.
Another way of stating Atletico’s defensive stinginess is by pointing to a different statistic: they have only conceded one solitary goal, bizarrely scored by Rostov in this season’s group phase, in any of their last nine Champions League home games.
So whichever way you look at the task facing Leicester’s Jamie Vardy and co on Wednesday, it’s pretty clear that somehow managing to register an all-important away goal will be exceptionally difficult for the Foxes.
The key factor behind Atletico’s defensive brilliance is the discipline and organisation implemented by manager Diego Simeone and his assistant, German ‘Mono’ Burgos.
That coaching duo are the best around at utilising their time on the training ground to ensure their team defends truly as a whole team, with all 11 players moving in perfect synchronicity to close down space and deny their opponents opportunities to work the ball into dangerous areas.
But they also have outstanding individuals at their disposal, starting at the back where Jan Oblak now surely deserves to be regarded as one of the finest goalkeepers in the world.
The Slovenian arrived from Benfica in the summer of 2014 following Thibaut Courtois’ departure to Chelsea and was initially slow to settle, making a poor Champions League debut in a 3-2 loss at Olympiacos and initially losing the starting spot to Miguel Angel Moya.
But a hamstring injury to Moya towards the end of that campaign allowed Oblak to have a second opportunity, and he has not looked back since.
Last season he played every minute of the La Liga campaign and equalled an all-time record by conceding just 18 goals in 38 games, as well as those Champions League clean sheets to help Atletico into the final.
And this year he has recovered from injury to arguably reach even greater heights, showing his quality with a number of excellent saves in Saturday’s Madrid derby draw at the Bernabeu.
The brilliance of Oblak, who is still only 24, significantly enhances Atletico’s chances of advancing to the semi-finals and beyond yet again, because away goals are simply so, so important in two-legged ties.
In fact, last season only one team succeeded in progressing to the next stage without scoring an away goal – eventual champions Real Madrid, who did it twice by mounting a big comeback against Wolfsburg after a 2-0 loss in Germany, and then overcame Manchester City 1-0 on aggregate with a narrow home win.
In all the other 12 ties, however, it was necessary to score an away goal to advance, and Leicester’s chances of continuing their remarkable fairy-tale story will be severely hampered if they don’t score on Wednesday.
The question is…how?
Borussia Dortmund’s team bus was hit by an explosion ahead of the team’s Champions League quarter-final first leg in Dortmund, forcing the game to be postponed from Tuesday to Wednesday.
Dortmund defender Marc Bartra was taken to the hospital, although his injuries are not thought to be serious.
Police have since confirmed that there were three explosions in the area.
Here’s how the events unfolded:
The Dortmund team bus has reportedly been attacked on the way to the stadium. There's been an explosion. One person is injured. pic.twitter.com/4fpsh8EtD2— Football__Tweet (@Football__Tweet) April 11, 2017
Borussia Dortmund's Marc Bartra has been taken to hospital after an explosion close to their team bus tonight. pic.twitter.com/SJaeWrcNwp— Football News (@TransferBibIe) April 11, 2017
Pictures of the Dortmund bus following the explosion. pic.twitter.com/TDBR5zAU7v— Dortmund English (@DortmundEN) April 11, 2017
OFFICIAL: Borussia Dortmund have now confirmed Marc Bartra was the player injured during the incident and is currently in hospital. pic.twitter.com/YBN6CGbZLK— Squawka News (@SquawkaNews) April 11, 2017
Marc Batra's injury is not serious. Thank goodness. Thoughts with the whole Dortmund team tonight 🙏 pic.twitter.com/Qmkejfyq3x— BigSport (@BigSportGB) April 11, 2017
#bvbasm has just been postponed until Wednesday, 12 April 1845 CET. Tickets remain valid. Thanks to everyone involved in the decision.— Borussia Dortmund (@BVB) April 11, 2017
👍 Thank you for your support in and outside the stadium and your kind messages throughout the whole world. #bvbasm— Borussia Dortmund (@BVB) April 11, 2017