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How Paulo Dybala changed the course of the Serie A title race

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What a nice guy Paulo is, right?

SS Lazio v Juventus - Serie A Photo by Paolo Bruno/Getty Images

It seems so long ago that Juventus were struggling to keep up with the ‘Sarrismo’ revolution in Naples that was taking the Serie A by storm. Napoli were outplaying, outscoring and outpassing any opponent they faced, while the defending champions in Turin continued to pick up unconvincing wins. Yet, the Bianconeri never faded away, matching their title contenders with each victory and were prepared to pounce on any slip up from the league leaders. When you’ve been crowned champions for six years running, you tend to get impatient when someone else is sitting in your seat at the top of the table.

For Juve, patience was a virtue as their long-awaited moment finally came at the start of March.

A sunny spring Saturday evening was being billed as judgment day in an increasingly-enthralling title race. It has been a while since the neutrals have been able to witness a competitive battle at the top of the table, with neither rival able to match Juve’s domination this decade. Some haven’t even bothered to try, realising the level of consistency and talented needed to attempt to overthrow the reigning champions. Napoli, however, accepted the challenge this year, sacrificing any and every other competition they found themselves in, to focus on winning their first league title in almost thirty years. Not even a Champions League group stage exit, a departure from the second round of the Europa League and early elimination in the Coppa Italia could deter the Naples outfit from placing all their eggs into the ‘league champions’ labelled basket.

As hard as it is, credit must be given to Sarri and his group of pass-adoration players for managing to push Juve. They’ve been able to hang around longer than most, at times making the impossible of them lifting the Serie A trophy, seem possible. Despite their admirable push, a race this tight usually comes down to aspects off the pitch, and that’s where the Bianconeri’s mental advantage in pressure situations was eventually going to play its part. This is a side which contains players who have played in multiple European finals and won World Cups. They needed more than the nuisance of a legitimate title contender to faze them.

Juve walked into the Stadio Olimpico for their encounter with Lazio, facing one of their toughest challenges of the year. Simone Inzaghi’s side had already beaten them twice this year- back in August Alessandro Murgia’s late winner cancelled out Paulo Dybala’s injury-time penalty to claim the Italian Super Cup, while Ciro Immobile’s quick second-half double shocked the Allianz Stadium in November. There aren’t many teams who match-up with Juve as well as Lazio do, and with the title race as tightly contested as it was, the Bianconeri were facing a monumental task to keep pace with the leaders.

A tense affair turned into a cagey, tactical battle with neither side comfortable in committing too many men forward. Juve knew that they couldn’t afford to drop any points, a scenario which became far more likely had they opened themselves up to a counter-attack while any positive result would become valuable to Lazio’s Champions League push. As the clock ticked past 90 minutes, a draw seemed a certainty until a Daniele Rugani pass somehow found its way through to Dybala, who scooped up a left-footed shot past the falling Thomas Strakosha to hand the away side the unlikeliest of victories. It was pandemonium for the champions, a performance and result which came through years of experience of being patient and waiting for the right moment to strike. While a win seemed improbable at the time, as soon as Dybala’s shot hit the back of the net, we were all questioning how we could doubt this team in the first place. Time and time again they pop up with late winners,it’s only appropriate they repeated the habit in such an occassion.

It’s that champion-mentality which allows Juve to pick up the ugly wins; those grind-it-out victories becoming the basis for any title success they’ve achieved this decade. Being able to endure a pressure contest where a draw looked like a foregone conclusion, only to escape with all three points, is what has led to Allegri’s side accomplishing the greatness they have. Look no further than Napoli’s performance on that same evening as proof of the differet mindsets between champions and challengers. As soon as Dybala’s shot hit the back of the net, the then-league leaders were already dwindling down the table. Their performance against Roma resembled that of a side stuck in mid-table than those looking to secure the title. Despite the Stadio San Paolo’s attempts to create the formidable raucous atmosphere so often found in the 60,000-seat arena, there was no bringing Napoli back from the psychological blow. They had suffered their greatest loss of the season, and they didn’t even need to step on the pitch to attain it.

Edin Dzeko was unstoppable as Cengiz Under ran rings around Mario Rui. ‘Sarrismo’ had turned from coaching inspiration to a meme, such is the harsh what-have-you-done-for-me lately state of the current football world and its fans. Juventus had now theoretically surpassed their counterparts at the top of the table. Though they trailed by a single point, the game-in-hand versus Atlanta meant it was advantage Juve. It was Napoli’s worst nightmare becoming a reality, having to play catch up for the rest of the season. They were now relying on the perennial champions to do something they rarely do; blow a lead at the top of the table.

The lion doesn’t become king of the jungle from overthrowing his competitor to take his seat. He becomes the king by remaining there, learning with each battle how to compete with and defeat his enemies. For Juventus, they know the last couple of months are always the most tense where each goal counts for double and every win pushes them closer to success. They’ve been here with league titles, Coppa Italia’s and Champions Leaguee knockout stages. Their ability to keep a lead isn’t just evident on the pitch, they never slip up when holding an advantage off it as well.

Napoli are all too aware of this, encountering Juve’s stubbornness countless times, whether it came in a two-legged cup tie or in attempting to keep pace with them during a title race. And if Dybala’s contribution against Lazio hadn’t disconcerted the Naples club enough, then his double salvo versus Udinese certainly left them scrambling as a dull goalless draw with Inter summed up a disappointing week for Sarri’s team. They looked flustered, unable to create any clear cut opportunites against a sturdy Luciano Spalletti side. Suddenly Juve had returned to first place, firmly in control as we head into the decisive part of the season.

The weekend just passed saw an uncharecteristic slip-up by the Bianconeri as they were held to a goalless draw at lowly S.P.A.L. Although dropping points, with the upcoming international break dragging the negative feeling of such a result even further, is disappointing, no-one could have expected Juve to win out their remaining fixtures. They were going to slip-up at some point, and it’s better to do so when you’re leading the pack rather than chasing it. Napoli responded with a less than inspiring 1-0 win over struggling Genoa in a performance which resembled a side low on confidence, still feeling the effects of a heartbreaking two weeks for their title ambitions.

At the time, Dybala’s late heroics seemed like it merely handed Juve a momentum booster at a time when they needed it most. The second-leg of their Champions League knockout tie with Tottenham was just around the corner, and a last-minute winner to keep pace in a thrilling title battle was exactly what the Bianconeri required. Not many could have expected it to have such a ripple effect over the next couple of weeks. The Argentinian has had a diffcult campaign, one which has been hampered by injuries, but the Juventini are all too familiar with the magic he can produce with that marvelous left foot. This time around, it may well have handed Juventus a seventh straight Serie A title.