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Manu’s Grab Bag: Final Goodbyes

We talk choking away another result, promising young guys and the farewells that were.

Juventus v Lazio - Serie A Photo by Isabella Bonotto/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Juventus choked away yet another chance at three points in a 2-2 draw against Lazio on Monday night after allowing a tying goal deep into stoppage time.

/extreme Mike Francesa voice/

Who cares?

The thousands upon thousands of Juventus fans at the Allianz Stadium and the millions more watching at home from all over the world were not tuning in to watch this supremely disappointing version of the Bianconeri play out the string of a lost season.

They were watching to say goodbye to two fan favorites that were playing their last home game ever at the Allianz Stadium pitch.Juventus could have won the game by five goals or lost it by 10, it really didn’t matter. No matter what happened, it was the Giorgio Chiellini and Paulo Dybala fan appreciation night. Once it was all said and done, the game was arguably the least important thing that happened on the pitch.

Let’s cook.

Defensive Player of the Week: Giorgio Chiellini

Sure, he played only 17 minutes, but that was all he needed to earn the Grab Bag points for Monday night’s game. #TheGr3atGiorgio was the theme of the night, and as absurd as that looks and sounds, a clunky social media hashtag was the least the club could do to honor one of the biggest Juventus legends of all time.

I’m sure many people would have liked to see him play for the full 90 minutes and enjoy every single second remaining of Chiellini in a black and white jersey. But, then again, what is left to see from one of the greatest defenders to ever don the stripes?

Chiellini wasn’t always an elite center back. In his 17 years of Juve history, he only started playing in the middle of the defense during the first season back in Serie A — out of necessity more than anything else — and still occasionally filled in at left back for a few more years. But it speaks to his unending quality that after he finally started to play as a center back exclusively you could have sworn he had been playing there since birth.

In arguments with friends, Chiellini was the one trump card I always had. Sure, we could talk circles around the best midfielders or strikers. About Messi vs. Ronaldo. About free kick takers, fullbacks and wingers. But there was never an argument to just saying “Sure, but Juve has the best defense.” How could anyone do better? In their heyday, Chiellini, Leo Bonucci and Andrea Barzagli were as good as it could get. They were the proverbial unmovable object that held some of the finest offensive talent of their time to their worst days at the office.

Chiellini’s body betrayed him earlier than his skill and mind did. Even in his latter years as a Juve player — whenever injuries permitted — he was still as capable as any to singlehandedly stop the best strikers in the world in their tracks.

Monday’s game wasn’t necessarily about seeing one of the best to ever do it have one more showdown with attackers. Or throw a couple last-bone crunching tackles. Or even get a bloody bandage on his head for old time’s sake. It was about offering a player that gave absolutely everything he had to give for the club a much-deserved farewell.

Chiellini achieved every single last thing he could have done with Juventus, and with no regrets he left the club being cheered by thousands. Everyone should be so lucky to be able to do what he has done and to leave the mark that he did. He was the quintessential Juventus field player for an entire generation and even if his impact on the field this season was not what it was in his heyday, he will surely be missed.

(He should have been captain for a lot longer, but what are you going to do when Gianluigi Buffon — arguably the quintessential Juve player, ever — shares the same locker room with you for pretty much your entire career?)

Grab Bag MVP Season Leader: Paulo Dybala (17 Points)

Exit Left for La Joya

One of the most Chiellini things during Monday night’s proceedings was how happy he looked. Laughing when getting subbed out, joyfully hugging teammates and fans as he took his Lap of Honor. Chuckling as old highlights played in his tribute video. He felt like a graduate who is proud and content about all he achieved and wanted to take it all in. You could hardly describe the vibe as being sad. It was a celebration and that’s what it should have been considering the way Chiellini is departing the club.

It was certainly the opposite for the other long-tenured member of Juventus making his last home appearance. It is already well known about all the drama that came with Dybala’s imminent departure from Juve. The long, torturous contract negotiation process, the close calls, the many reports of a deal getting done, the deal very much not getting done and the unceremonious — and relatively acrimonious — last-minute contract offer withdrawal.

After Dybala took the captain’s armband from Chiellini — once the former got ceremoniously subbed out in the 17th minute — he proceeded to play another great game. Being the offensive fulcrum of a team that remains in desperate need of one. After Dusan Vlahovic scored the opener and did Dybala’s trademark celebration, you could tell how much La Joya meant to his teammates as they all mobbed each other in celebration.

(One of the weirdest narratives that came out of Dybala’s last few years was how he wasn’t fit to be captain because he was never a particularly vocal or fiery guy. If all the shows of appreciation he has gotten from his teammates — even new ones like Vlahovic — don’t put that narrative to rest, I don’t know what will. He was as beloved of a teammate as they come, and it’s probably a good example that you don’t always need to be the most vocal person in a room to be a leader.)

Once Dybala was subbed out, his reaction was much different than Chiellini’s. He was stoic, fighting back tears as he hugged his teammates goodbye. There were no smiles, no goofy dancing. He had the face of a man that wanted to stretch those last minutes as much as possible and couldn’t quite believe what was happening.

During his own Lap of Honor, Dybala still refused to crack a smile as he took selfies with fans, signed every piece of paper and fabric thrown his way and shook every men, women and child’s hand like a presidential candidate. After the game was over and once Chiellini’s video tribute ended, his teammates hoisted Juve’s No. 10 up in the air as he finally broke down in tears while getting one last big round of applause from the Bianconeri faithful.

(Chiellini’s farewell video and celebration was very nice and I’m sure he enjoyed it, but the raw emotion of teammates and fans giving Dybala his due was 1,000% more affecting. That’s the one thing that Juve’s new sleek image, social media campaigns, moronic hashtags and engineered emotion has never been able to get right. And probably never will.)

And after all, that’s the big difference between the two goodbyes. Chiellini is the elder statesman that did everything under the sun until he had nothing more to give. He will surely be remembered in the pantheon of Juve greats and his accomplishments in the black and white stripes will — by any measure — dwarf Dybala’s once it’s all said and done.

But, Dybala is the unfinished story, the player that should have been able to do so much more with this team until tactical fits, injuries, a shift in hierarchy and a ruthless contract renewal process made him expendable. His exit hurts more because we all knew that there was so much left still on the table for him as a stalwart of this club. As a guy that came in as a hotshot prospect and rose to a player capable of being named captain.

His tears as he took one last round of applause at the stadium in which he is the all-time leading scorer betrayed one fact and one fact only. That that there was more left to accomplish. That he now won’t be able to do it. That time ran out. And that he is deeply, painfully aware of that fact.

(These two only playing for one semester of football in a doomed season will forever be one of the biggest “What Ifs” for Juve fans everywhere.)

Parting Shot of the Week

As old idols emerge, new ones arise.

That is football, that is life. Its cyclical, nothing is the same as it was yesterday. And there was a certain sense of synchrony as Matthijs de Ligt — Chiellini’s heir apparent — was subbed in for the veteran captain and shortly after the game was over it was heavily rumored that de Ligt would be signing an extension to remain with Juventus for the foreseeable future.

There was also at one point three youth players on the field as Fabio Miretti started the game with Marley Ake and Martin Palumbo coming in as subs. Their careers are just starting but the hope — as with any young player — is that in seven or 10 or 15 years they will too be taking a walk alongside the Allianz Stadium walls greeting adoring fans as they witnessed their two otherworldly talented teammates do on Monday.

There’s a popular saying that watching sports is rooting for laundry, and to an extent that is correct. Most of us will continue to root for Juventus long after our favorite players leave the team, but it’s undeniable that those very same players are the ones that make you live and die with their actions. That we all can point to the exact moment when we fell in love with the game because of the on the field performances of a group of individuals and that when those players move on a part of our fandom moves on with them.

For many fans Giorgio Chiellini was one of those players and for many others Paulo Dybala was, too.

See you Saturday.