DOHA, Qatar (AP) — Paulo Dybala posted a photo of himself on Instagram laughing along with his Argentina teammate Lionel Messi, with the accompanying words: “We carry on with a smile! Let’s go.”
Argentina might be getting ever closer to a place in the World Cup final but, on a purely personal level, the tournament has been nothing much to laugh about for Dybala.
The Roma playmaker hasn’t played a minute in Qatar, despite the injuries afflicting Argentina on its turbulent run to the quarterfinals and the declining form of forward Lautaro Martinez.
So what’s the deal with Dybala, a player affectionately known as La Joya (or “The Jewel”) and a standout in Italian soccer at his best?
His biggest impediment is Lionel Messi himself. Dybala’s preferred position is in the No. 10 position or the roving role off the striker -- which happens to be where Argentina's superstar is best deployed.
Given there's no way a healthy Messi is getting dropped, Dybala has to be moved into another position that doesn’t necessarily suit his game.
Then there’s the thigh injury that almost cost him a place in Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni’s squad for the World Cup. It was sustained when he converted a late, winning penalty for Roma in early October and led to him missing eight games for his club.
Dybala returned for Roma’s last game before the World Cup, convincing Scaloni that he was healthy enough to be included in the 26-man squad.
The coach insists that fitness problems aren’t the reason why Dybala has yet to play at the World Cup.
“If he is out, it’s only a tactical decision,” Scaloni said during the group stage. “Paulo is fine, he is supporting the group from the outside. Obviously, he would like to play more.”
That much can be said about his overall international career.
Dybala is 29 and has played 34 games — often as a substitute — for Argentina since his debut in 2015, which doesn’t seem many for a player of his talent.
The last of his three goals for the Albiceleste came as a late substitute in the 3-0 win over Italy in the Finalissima — a game between the European and South American champions — in London in June.
And his only game time at a World Cup was in 2018, as a 68th-minute substitute in the 3-0 loss to Croatia in the group stage. Argentina eventually exited in the round of 16 against France.
There is a chance Dybala could see some action against the Netherlands in the quarterfinals on Friday, though.
Ángel Di María was injured against Poland in the final group game and Papu Gómez, who replaced Di Maria in the 2-1 win over Australia in the round of 16, came off in that match with some discomfort in his ankle.
According to Argentine media, neither Di María nor Gómez trained with the rest of the squad on Monday, instead doing recovery work separately.
That might leave a place in the front three up for grabs against the Dutch.
Quoted in Italian newspaper Gazzetta Dello Sport on Monday, Dybala spoke of the “sacrifice” he made to get healthy again after the pre-tournament injury.
“I was scared because I knew that there was little time available to recover and the injury was serious,” Dybala said. “They were days of great effort in which I was able to devote little time to my family and my girlfriend, but the dream of recovering was too big.”
Collecting a World Cup winner’s medal would make that sacrifice worthwhile. Dybala, one of three outfield players yet to feature so far in the tournament, would just like to play an active role along the way.
Steve Douglas is at https://twitter.com/sdouglas80
AP World Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/world-cup and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports
Steve Douglas, The Associated Press