Juventus's young midfielder was no phantom menace as he blew Bologna away with a match-winning performance
The Force is strong with this one. To celebrate Halloween, Juventus posted a series of pictures on Facebook and Twitter in which their players were reimagined as ghosts, ghouls or other sinister characters. Gigi Buffon starred as Freddy Krueger, Andrea Pirlo was the Joker, and Arturo Vidal played Hannibal Lecter. None of those three, however, would prove to be the chief protagonist of this October evening. That honour would fall to Darth Maul.
"[Paul] Pogba, the menacing ghost who appears in the opposition half," read the text accompanying the image of the Juventus midfielder with lightsaber in hand. While Star Wars fans might quibble with the reclassification of the Dathomirian Zabrak race as mere spectres, followers of football could not dispute the assessment of Pogba's role. Against Bologna, his was a performance brimming with menace from the outset.
Less than 15 minutes had passed when he first connected ball with net – Pogba heading home a corner only for the goal to be (correctly) ruled out over his shove on Marco Motta in the build-up. Moments later his swerving left-footed drive from outside the box would crash away off the post. "It was a 20-minute hurricane against the Bologna defence," wrote Diego Costa in La Repubblica. "A 'Sandy' called Pogba."
If the visitors somehow clung on to half-time, suffering another narrow escape just before the break when Pogba headed wide from six yards out, then they were only delaying the inevitable. Nine minutes into the second half the same player bypassed Bologna's defence with an immaculate chipped pass that picked out Emmanuele Giaccherini running into the box. He headed the ball across goal for Fabio Quagliarella to prod home.
Pogba's only mistake to that point might have been making it look too easy. A quarter of an hour later his team-mate Paolo De Ceglie would attempt to mimic that chip – only this time from down near his own team's goal-line. The ball fell to Bologna's Saphir Taïder, who brought it under control before dispatching it from the edge of the area to the bottom corner of Buffon's net. It was his team's first shot on target.
Suddenly it was Juventus who were being haunted by the ghosts of seasons past. Last year they had drawn both of their league games against these opponents by the same scoreline: 1-1. The timing was less than ideal. As things stood, the Bianconeri would go into the weekend's match against Inter with just a two-point lead over those opponents at the top of Serie A.
Pogba, though, was not done yet. Two minutes into injury-time, his close-range header from a Sebastian Giovinco cross sealed the points for his team.
Up in the press box at Juventus Stadium, reporters were running out of superlatives. "Paul Pogba beats Bologna 2-1," ran the opening line of Il Messaggero's report, while Mediaset declared the midfielder to be the real "monster" of All Hallows' Eve. "You're 19 years old Paul, can't you mess something up?" demanded Gazzetta dello Sport's GB Olivero.
"It is early to make comparisons," wrote Olivero's colleague Fabio Bianchi, before going on to do precisely that. "But this Pogba resembles a certain Mr Vieira. He could even be better. He is only 19."
If that is an absurdly premature statement to make, this being just Pogba's third start for the club, then it is certainly easy to understand now why Sir Alex Ferguson was so frustrated to see the player leave this summer. The Manchester United manager accused Pogba, who had turned down several offers of a new contract, of showing a lack of respect to the club who had themselves spirited him away from Le Havre in 2009.
Pogba, though, insisted that he had no regrets, claiming that Ferguson had not trusted him. Granted just three league appearances by United – who received a token €1m in compensation – prior to his departure, he declared himself "impatient" but also insisted he had been made no guarantees of a starting spot at Juventus. "The coach [Antonio Conte] told me there are a lot of games and he wanted a substitute for [Arturo] Vidal and [Andrea] Pirlo," said Pogba. "He didn't tell me I would play a certain number of matches."
The competition for places in Juventus's first-choice midfield is indeed fierce, with Pogba theoretically needing to displace one of Vidal, Pirlo or Claudio Marchisio in order to start. It was a conundrum neatly summed up by Olivero in Gazzetta: "Will Ferguson curse over not having kept him at Manchester? Very probably yes. Will Didier Deschamps, the France manager, call him up for the first time in a few days? Very probably yes.
"And will Conte leave him out for the big match on Saturday against Inter? Very probably yes, unless ankle problems keep out Marchisio. The hierarchy is clear, Vidal and the Little Prince [Marchisio] have never got it wrong in the most important games. They deserve faith."
Pogba himself did not seem overly troubled by the question of whether he would start against Inter, saying he just wanted to enjoy the moment and that he knew he still had lots of room for improvement. Conte's assistant manager, Angelo Alessio, sought to temper any over-enthusiasm by claiming that Pogba had cooled off after his first 20 minutes and was guilty of over-elaboration.
But the truth is that Pogba does not need to supplant any member of Conte's first-choice XI in order to be a factor for Juve. With the added challenge of a European campaign to deal with this season, the manager is well aware of the need to keep all of his players fresh, and the team he sent out on Wednesday featured five changes from the one that had beaten Catania on Sunday.
Not all of those replacements impressed – De Ceglie struggling even before his critical lapse of judgment. But it is precisely the addition of such options as Pogba, Kwadwo Asamoah and Mauricio Isla that make this year's Juve team look so ominous – rendering them that much less likely to slip up in the fixtures against 'lesser' opponents such as Bologna. The Bianconeri, unbeaten in 49 dating back to last season, have dropped just two points in the first 10 games of this campaign.
On Saturday they face what might be their biggest domestic challenge to date – Inter having won their last eight games in all competitions and who moved up to second in the table with their 3-2 victory over Sampdoria on Wednesday. Andrea Stramaccioni's side have also triumphed in all eight of their away games this season between league and Europe.
The Nerazzurri may well not have to deal with Pogba on Saturday, for all the reasons outlined above. But as a reflection of the strength of this Juventus team, that might be the scariest thing of all.
• Only one Inter manager, incidentally, has ever overseen a longer run of all-competition wins than Stramaccioni's present eight-game stretch. That was, of course, Roberto Mancini back in 2006-07. Previously Claudio Ranieri, Giovanni Trapattoni and Gigi Simoni had matched his eight-game run.
• Inter look more and more like, to use the Italian newspaper parlance, this year's "anti-Juve" – not least because the other would-be contenders are beginning to show their flaws. Napoli were without Edinson Cavani again for their trip to Atalanta this week and their reliance on the striker could scarcely have been more sharply highlighted. Without him Napoli dominated, registering nine shots on target to Atalanta's one, but still lost.
• The theme of this week's round was undoubtedly the comeback – Inter recovering from a goal down in their win, just as Parma did against Roma (though frankly at this rate it will soon only be the Roma games without a second-half comeback that are noteworthy). Milan were 2-0 down after 50 minutes of their match in Palermo but recovered to draw 2-2. Antonio Di Natale put Udinese 1-0 up against Catania after half an hour, then had to rescue a point for his team in the 93rd minute after they had blown that advantage.
• Speaking of Di Natale – that's now four goals in his last two games. Without him, it is clear that this Udinese team would be struggling far more greatly in the wake of their latest round of departures. Just because he's been doing it for four years now, doesn't stop it being remarkable.
• Roma did not just frustrate their own fans this midweek. To reach Parma the team had decided to take the train, taking advantage of Trenitalia's high-speed service. The train company, however, had neglected to inform its other passengers of this stop – which reportedly caused an unexpected delay of over half an hour to their journey. Trenitalia have offered passengers a 25% reimbursement on their ticket purchases. No such refund has yet been offered to the Roma fans beginning to despair at their team's total inability to defend.
• For Milan, meanwhile, it was a case of another game, yet another formation from the manager Massimiliano Allegri – experimenting this time with a 3-5-2. On Wednesday the team's vice-president, Adriano Galliani, once again reassured his manager that his job was safe, saying that he had resolved one or two of his own disagreements with the manager and that the team's owner, Silvio Berlusconi, was calm. "[But] I get angry when I see five holding midfielders," Galliani added. The one bright note was, as ever, Stephan El Shaarawy. He now has seven goals in 10 league games, and remains one of the great revelations of this Serie A season to date.
Results: Atalanta 1-0 Napoli, Cagliari 4-2 Siena, Chievo 2-0 Pescara, Inter 3-2 Sampdoria, Juventus 2-1 Bologna, Lazio 1-1 Torino, Palermo 2-2 Milan, Parma 3-2 Roma, Udinese 2-2 Catania