MADRID: Diminutive, dynamic and armed with a deadly left foot, Paulo Dybala could be a prototype of a Lionel Messi clone.
The similarities between the two Argentines, who face off in Wednesday’s Champions League quarter-final second leg between Juventus and Barcelona, have been noted by Dybala’s strike partner Gonzalo Higuain among others.
The fact that Argentina now looks for the next Messi rather than the next Diego Maradona is as good a testament to the five-time world player of the year’s achievements as any.
Hundreds of talented number 10s were christened as Maradona’s heir before Messi turned even the “Hand of God” into distant memory.
“Messi is the best, he shows it every day,” said Higuain, who joined Juventus in a fractious transfer from Napoli for 90 million euros ($96 million) at the start of the season and has played alongside Messi for most of his 68 Argentina caps.
“Paulo is still young. He is 23 and has the world at his feet,” he told Premium Sport.
The younger man won the battle in the first leg last week with a quickfire first-half double as Juventus claimed a commanding 3-0 lead.
However to win the war, the Italian champions must resist for 90 minutes at the Camp Nou to prevent another famous Barcelona comeback.
The Catalans overcame a record 4-0 first-leg deficit by beating Paris Saint-Germain 6-1 in the second leg at home in the last 16.
“It’s one of my greatest nights in football,” said Dybala after the first leg. “Let’s not ruin it now.”
Last week in Turin was only the second time Dybala and Messi have graced the same pitch.
The first time was a far unhappier experience for Dybala as he was sent off on his first start for Argentina.
A tearful Dybala was consoled and bailed out by his captain that night as Messi scored the only goal in a 1-0 World Cup qualifying win over Uruguay last September.
– ‘Dream’ achieved –
“Messi told me to be calm, that these things happen and that it was the referee’s fault,” Dybala said afterwards.
Yet, even a red card brought comparisons to Messi as he too was sent off for the only time in his career just minutes into his Argentina debut.
Dybala’s big break in the national team could yet come due to another piece of uncharacteristic Messi indiscipline.
Messi is banned for three of Argentina’s four remaining games of a floundering World Cup qualifying campaign, with Dybala clearly the most natural replacement.
Even despite seeing red that night in Mendoza, Dybala achieved a long-awaited “dream”.
“My dream was to play a one-two with him and I managed to do that,” he said. “It is incredible to play by his side.”
Higuain knows more than most about the joys and pressures of playing next to Messi.
The former Real Madrid man is often derided as the reason Messi has failed to win a major international trophy having missed gilt-edged chances in the 2014 World Cup and 2015 and 2016 Copa America finals.
Matching Messi is an almost impossible task. At 23, he had already won the Ballon d’Or and is now just two goals off a remarkable 500 for Barcelona.
However, Higuain recognises a common talent and points to Messi’s consistency as the goal for his teammate to reach.
“He has the characteristics to become one of the best players in the world.
“After getting to the top so quickly, it is not easy to stay there for many years.
“There will be many ups and downs and you have to always maintain an equilibrium and not listen to the critics or the compliments.”