As has so often been the case in recent years, Andrea Pirlo spoke most eloquently for Juventus on Saturday night. While it’s normally his feet that put it best, it was his tears that did the talking on the Olympiastadion pitch after the Champions League final defeat to Barcelona.
The midfielder’s puffy and reddened features captured the world’s attention immediately, as well as emphasising Juve’s mood. Massimiliano Allegri’s men had given everything, and had still come up short—an unfamiliar feeling for a team that has consistently swept all before them in Italy in modern times.
As Pirlo dealt with his sense of loss, only one of his teammates felt able to approach him. Ultimately, the sight of Paul Pogba, still only 22 years old, comforting a gilded colleague 14 years his senior said plenty about the young Frenchman’s status, maturity and confidence.
Pogba’s influence during the 90 minutes had been a matter to polarise opinion. At times, he had been as much a beacon of Juve’s ambition as he always is, seemingly the only player able to bring the ball through the centre of the pitch into Barcelona’s half with any purpose. At others, he seemed frustrated and stymied, like in the moment just before half-time when he brought down Lionel Messi to earn a yellow card.
All this must be judged, of course, against the height of expectation for Pogba. Even in these days of Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, where the jaw-dropping is almost made routine, the demands on Pogba are high—and with reason. He so rarely disappoints.
His one free pass was, perhaps, in his opening season in Turin, having signed from Manchester United in the summer of 2012. Lest we forget, many had believed that Pogba had jumped from the frying pan into the fire, after quitting Old Trafford due to frustration at the lack of first-team opportunities.
Pogba’s positive contribution to that title triumph, making 18 Serie A starts and scoring five times, had backed up his judgement and daring as much as it underlined his talent. That debut campaign at Juve also marked another stage in his rise in status from promising talent to cast-iron future great—his full international debut.
In March 2013, Pogba played the full 90 minutes for France, not in some token friendly, but in a tricky away tie in Georgia. Les Bleus came out on top, and by the time he scored his first international goal, six months later in a hard-earned win in Belarus, he was a key tenet of Didier Deschamps’ future strategy—three caps into his France career. His leadership qualities were in evidence in between as he led France to U20 World Cup glory in Turkey.
This is the sort of pressure that Pogba has had to learn to live with in the past two-and-a-bit years, and on the whole, he has dealt with it remarkably. It is also the form and poise that has led to him being linked with the very biggest clubs in world football, with Barca president Josep Bartomeu openly confirming after the final this weekend that the midfielder is “one of our objectives” (to the TF1 programme Telefoot, as reported by Football Italia).
That Pogba is a player of not only such talent, but such personality, is why some felt a mild sense of deflation at his Champions League final display. Sure, he weighed in, and he didn't hide. Pogba could even have made the match’s most vital intervention, had referee Cuneyt Cakir seen Dani Alves’ penalty-box challenge on the Frenchman as a foul, rather than letting play continue in a passage that eventually led to Luis Suarez’s pivotal goal.
What the football-watching public expects of Pogba now is so much more, though. They’re not going to pat him him on the back for a good effort. They want, and expect, someone who’s going to grab a game by the throat, and bend it to his will, in a way that only the stellar can. Like Messi, for example, does, albeit in a different way to how Pogba could.
Pogba will continue to bear those demands, as he will be expected to make Euro 2016, in his home country, his own tournament. Saturday’s final showed how special he can be. It also showed that he—like his team—has a way to go before he can dominate a match every time. That’s why he should stay, and continue to grow with Juve.