90min
Paulo Dybala

Cristiano Ronaldo absence hands Paulo Dybala last chance to fight for Juventus future

Max Cooper
Dybala has the chance to convince Juventus of his place in this team
Dybala has the chance to convince Juventus of his place in this team / MARCO BERTORELLO/Getty Images
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Sunday afternoon's clash between Juventus and Atalanta could be the most important match in I Bianconeri's season, and for the next few seasons to come.

Its importance doesn't necessarily lie in the outcome of the result, nor in its significance on the table (although defeat for the Old Lady could have serious repercussions to their top-four ambitions).

Cristiano Ronaldo Crying GIF by BT Sport - Find & Share on GIPHY

But an even more enticing narrative is set to unfold, and its shockwaves, which could ripple over the next half-decade in Turin, may be cast over the next 90 minutes of football.

The big news from Andrea Pirlo's pre-match press conference goes as follows: Cristiano Ronaldo will miss the clash with Atalanta through injury. He continued: Paulo Dybala is set to be handed a place in the starting lineup instead.

What does this all mean? It means that Dybala has 90 minutes to prove why he should be awarded a brand new contract this summer, even if that sends Ronaldo on his way out of Turin.

No pressure, Paulo.

Several key points come to the fore when weighing up Juve owner Andrea Agnelli's options. Firstly, no matter how many times the club tells Dybala he's free to leave, the Argentine refuses to go. He loves being a Juventus player, and wants to spend as much of his career as possible in Turin.

Secondly, Ronaldo's eye-watering €31m-a-year salary - which is more than the entire Atalanta squad combined - is crippling the club and destroying their spending power in the transfer window. So, while the Portuguese player is anchored to the Old Lady, the chances of upgrading the players around him are slim.

Thirdly, with both Ronaldo and Dybala's contract set to expire next summer, and with both players losing value in the transfer market with each passing month, one thing is clear: one of them must go.

The problem facing Dybala this season has largely been that fitness issues of his own have restricted him from showing his value to Pirlo and his Juventus revolution. To compound those woes, Ronaldo has banged home 25 goals in 27 games to make him, statistically at least, I Bianconeri's most important player.

Is La Joya fighting a losing battle then?

Not necessarily, actually. For all Ronaldo's stats and goals against Cagliari and Spezia, he has let Juve down in the big games - which, you know, was kind of the only reason he was signed in the first place.

I Bianconeri probably could have won the league title without him in both of his first two seasons at the club, even if his overkill numbers suggest he was their sole source of goals. And given that he was recruited as a Champions League expert, his showings against Lyon and Porto in the last two European exits were as dismal as they come.

Now aged 36 and entering what should be his final year in Turin, his influence at the big moments is waning, and his impact on the team outside of the penalty area is non-existent. Realistically, a penalty-box poacher is not the man you want to build your team around - especially if it subsequently means sacrificing the most talented player at the club.

Dybala is good enough to be the face and heart of this Juve team, and the moment has arrived to demonstrate it. He feels like the perfect man to play in behind Alvaro Morata or feed the lightning Federico Chiesa, while providing exactly what the Italian champions have lacked all season: creativity and an attacking link between the midfield and the forwards.

The Argentine should be the sort of player Pirlo would love moulding, given his own tendencies to express himself on the pitch, and the fact that he started his playing career in a similar role, before eventually becoming a regista in the midfield.

If the rookie coach can find a way to get the best out of Dybala, then there should be no looking back. There are few trickier teams to audition against than Atalanta, but a strong showing against la Dea could plant the seed of doubt in Pirlo's mind, over the club's seeming acceptance to cash in on the former Palermo man.

He needs to be the one to say, "No, Dybala is the man for me, not Ronaldo." That will only happen if the forward turns up and does what he does best against Atalanta. This season has been his worst in the Bianconeri jersey, but exterior factors have more than played their part, and none more so than the question marks over his future.

The 27-year-old is now hitting his prime years, and he wants to be paid accordingly - nothing wrong with that. Sadly, Juve simply can't afford to give him what he deserves while Ronaldo is on the books, even if his demands remain a fraction of the Portuguese forward's wages.

Letting Dybala walk away in order to keep Ronaldo around for an extra year would be a huge mistake, regardless of the Real Madrid legend's stature and income benefits. When considering the situation with a bit of common sense, there should be only one winner in this duel:

The insanely talented, influential match-winner who still has so much of his career ahead of him.

Paulo Dybala, Cristiano Ronaldo
Only one can stay / Jonathan Moscrop/Getty Images

Let's not mince our words when it comes to the size of the task awaiting La Joya, however. No player faces a tougher challenge than ousting a legend with Ronaldo's reputation from his throne, even if the king is getting on a bit.

Sunday's clash with Atalanta, combined with the Portuguese superstar's absence gives Dybala the perfect opportunity to take his shot and stake his claim as Juventus' present and future, in what could be his last dance in black and white.

You come at the King though, you best not miss. Grab this chance with both hands, Paulo.


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