Paul Pogba was one of a few Juventus players that comforted a bereft Andrea Pirlo at the Stadio Olympico in 2015.
Barcelona had just defeated Juventus 3-1 in the Champions League final, with Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez proving too brilliant in Berlin, and Pogba, just 22 years old, had the confidence and maturity to approach Pirlo. Both players were crestfallen, but that was Pirlo’s last opportunity on domestic football’s biggest stage while Pogba thought it was the first of many for himself.
Pogba left Manchester United on a free transfer in 2012 and three years later he was playing in a Champions League final. His decision to relocate to Turin had already been vindicated in his mind before that final in Berlin, but that season added more weight behind his decision. Juventus made the Champions League final while United had no European football for the first time since 1990.
Pogba seemed to have the world at his feet. He was the world’s most exciting midfielder and it was a statement of intent from United when he was re-signed for a world record transfer fee in 2016. Pogba sealed a fairytale return to the club that summer, which was one year after Juventus fell short in the Champions League final, and he naturally spoke about winning trophies with United.
Six years have gone by since then and Pogba has won the Europa League and League Cup at Old Trafford.
Those aren’t the major honors he was expecting to challenge for and his time at the club has been underwhelming.
Pogba’s contract at United expires this summer and the club are preparing for his departure. Sources close to Pogba say there is still no inclination for the midfielder to commit to United at this late stage and that means he’s set to walk through the exit door exactly 10 years after he last left on a free transfer. It’s hard to claim United have had a healthy return on their 2016 investment.
Pogba has been a polarizing figure during his second stint at United, but even the player’s biggest critics can’t argue that he’s not the club’s most talented player when at his best, yet despite his obvious class, he’s sadly been quite the enigma.
His best moments have been fleeting and he’s been unable to produce consistently excellent performances, however, he has the opportunity this season – the last chance before his exit – to ensure his legacy isn’t muddled and etched with frustration.
United are out of the Carabao Cup and the FA Cup, their Premier League title challenge never began and the only avenue for silverware remaining is in the Champions League. Considering United’s tumultuous season and levels of performances, it seems they would need a miracle, but stranger things have happened. Leicester’s Premier League triumph proves nothing is impossible.
If United are going to progress to the latter stages of the Champions League in the coming months – they play Atletico Madrid in the last-16 on Wednesday – then they will need Pogba at his best. He has the talent to be an instrumental force.
Pogba described the Champions League as ‘a trophy I think about, I always have it in mind’ back in 2018 and he can prove that burning desire by producing strong displays for United in the knockout rounds of the competition this season.
Pogba laughed and joked with Bruno Fernandes after the final at Elland Road on Sunday and he’s seemed visibly relaxed and happy since his return from injury, but nothing would clearly make him happier than a serious challenge for the Champions League.
The 28-year-old is likely expected to have made a few more appearances in the Champions League finals by this stage of his career, but it obviously hasn’t happened at United. That doesn’t mean it can’t, even in the most unlikely, miserable campaign.
The demands of knockout football could suit United in a season where they only seem capable of playing good for phases during matches. Pogba has been to a Champions League final, he’s reached the final of a European Championship and he’s won a World Cup with France. He was outstanding in all of those competitions and United will be hoping to see more of that big-game player.
Pogba has the opportunity to salvage his legacy at United. He’ll need his teammates to deliver in spades, he’ll need them to somehow find something that they haven’t all season and United will need luck, but it’s not beyond the realms of possibility.
An admirable, brave effort from United in the Champions League would certainly save some dignity from a poor campaign.
It would also mean history would look back at Pogba’s time at the club in a more favorable manner.