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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 16 November 2018

Juventus will see up close who got the better end of Paul Pogba's move to Manchester United

Frenchman was sold by Italians back to United, whom they face on Tuesday in the Champions League, for a hefty profit, but did they use the funds to upgrade with superior talent?

Manchester United's French midfielder Paul Pogba arrives for a training session at the Carrington Training complex in Manchester. AFP
Manchester United's French midfielder Paul Pogba arrives for a training session at the Carrington Training complex in Manchester. AFP

Paul Pogba may represent the best piece of business Juventus ever did. The balance sheet, after all, makes a compelling argument. He joined the Italian champions on a free transfer, age 19, from Manchester United, having let his contract wind down, frustrated at a shortage of match time. Four years later, Juve sold him to Manchester United, for well over €100 million (Dh422m).

That’s an astonishing profit, even in hyperinflationary times. Juventus was a good move for Pogba, too: four seasons there gave him four Italian league titles, as a far more significant contributor than he had been to United’s Premier League win of the period he was on their staff, looking on as a junior from the margins in 2011. He was still just a United "discovery" at that stage, scouted from Le Havre and deemed a fine future prospect by Alex Ferguson, who always had a sharp eye for a player.

It might be said that United are still discovering Pogba, all these years and tens of millions of investment later, still teasing out how best to unleash the dashing, swaggering champion within a 25 year old who won the last World Cup, who collected those gold medals with Juve, and who also galvanised United through the Europa League at the end of his first season back in Manchester.

Pogba will reach a minor landmark on Tuesday night at Old Trafford, the 100th game of his second spell with United, and he can be sure he will judged rigorously in the executive suites over who got the better deal from his last transfer, and by the managers of both teams.

His performance will inevitably be measured on the media's favourite gauge, the one that tracks Pogba’s relationship with Jose Mourinho, the United manager. The gauge dipped a little on Saturday, when the 1.90-metre Pogba failed in his marshalling duties while United defended a set-piece at Chelsea and conceded the first goal of a see-saw 2-2 draw in London. But Pogba then contributed significantly to United’s equaliser. Mourinho may not have discovered in that 90 minutes much more than he knew already about Pogba, except that, perhaps, that it is wise not always to pinpoint publicly his shortcomings with positional discipline when he can so quickly affect the attacking verve of the team.

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For both manager and player, a period of rapprochement is due, after an August and September peppered with statements from both parties that revealed a combative, critical relationship, saw Pogba demoted from the United vice captaincy and stirred up speculation that the Frenchman wanted to move to Barcelona, or perhaps back to Juventus. There, the enthusiasm for such a sequel would be restrained, given the vast expenditure Juve committed in July to hiring Cristiano Ronaldo, another figure whose voyage of discovery included a major United chapter.

Besides, Juve sold Pogba because they believed that, with the mammoth United fee, they could replace him. Tuesday’s Champions League meeting, and the return fixture in Turin, will test how far they did. Back in the summer of 2016, a substantial chunk of the Pogba revenue went on signing Gonzalo Higuain, whose goals helped Juve through two tightly fought Serie A contests to a pair of league titles; Higuain, superseded by Ronaldo, is now on loan at AC Milan.

The midfield hole left by Pogba, who scored 34 goals in his 178 games for Juve, was filled initially by Miralem Pjanic, at €32m from Roma. The diminutive, unshowy Bosnian is a distinct sort of footballer from the tall, demonstrative Frenchman, but his influence is comparable: They can both pick out a long-range pass with uncanny precision. Pjanic is adaptable, too. He found himself operating in deeper positions in his early days with Juve, under Max Allegri, and mastered them.

A year later, Juve bought Blaise Matuidi, by then 30 years old, for an initial €21m from Paris Saint-Germain, earmarking the left side of a three-man midfield as the territory for his energetic running. That’s Pogba’s optimum position and an area Matuidi has had to cede from time to time in the colours of France, although not at the World Cup in Russia, where they thrived together in a midfield anchored by N’Golo Kante. Matuidi, a long-time international ally, may be the man who has least still to discover about his friend Pogba.

No club manager has worked in longer harmony with Pogba than Allegri. “I am happy to see how he has developed,” said the Juve manager of Pogba’s World Cup success. He will not have been unhappy to see Pogba among the United men flummoxed again by a set-piece against them at the weekend. With Pjanic’s delivery and the towering targets of Ronaldo, Giorgio Chiellini, Leo Bonucci and Mario Mandzukic, Juve have the tools to hurt a team still scarred by their tormented start to the season.