In 2015, Paul Pogba was one of the few Juventus players who consoled a distraught Andrea Pirlo at the Stadio Olympico.
Barcelona had just defeated Juventus 3-1 in the Champions League final, with Lionel Messi, Neymar, and Luis Suarez proving too good in Berlin, and Pogba, who was only 22 years old at the time, had the confidence and maturity to approach Pirlo. Both players were disappointed, but Pirlo knew it was his last chance on the biggest stage in domestic football, while Pogba thought it was the first of many.
Pogba left Manchester United on a free transfer in 2012 and was playing in the Champions League final three years later. His decision to move to Turin had already been validated in his mind prior to the final in Berlin, but that season added more weight to his decision. Juventus reached the Champions League final, while United did not play in Europe for the first time since 1990.
Pogba appeared to have the entire world at his disposal. He was the world’s most exciting midfielder, and United’s decision to re-sign him for a world record transfer fee in 2016 was a statement of intent. Pogba completed a fairytale return to United that summer, one year after Juventus fell short in the Champions League final, and he naturally spoke about winning trophies with United.
In the six years since, Pogba has won the Europa League and the League Cup at Old Trafford.
Those aren’t the major awards he expected to compete for, and his time at the club has been disappointing.
Pogba’s contract at Manchester United expires this summer, and the club is preparing to let him go. According to sources close to Pogba, there is still no desire for the midfielder to commit to United at this late stage, which means he will walk out the door exactly 10 years after he last left on a free transfer. It’s difficult to argue that United got a good return on their 2016 investment.
Pogba has been a divisive figure during his second stint at United, but even his harshest critics can’t deny that he’s the club’s most talented player when at his best, and yet, despite his obvious talent, he’s remained an enigma.
His best moments have been fleeting, and he has been unable to consistently produce excellent performances; however, this season – his final chance before leaving – he has the opportunity to ensure his legacy isn’t muddled and etched with frustration.
United have been knocked out of the Carabao Cup and the FA Cup, their Premier League title challenge has stalled, and their only remaining chance for silverware is in the Champions League. Given United’s tumultuous season and levels of performance, it appears that a miracle is required, but stranger things have happened. Leicester’s Premier League victory demonstrates that nothing is impossible.
If United are to advance to the latter stages of the Champions League in the coming months – they face Atletico Madrid in the last-16 on Wednesday – Pogba must be at his best. He has the potential to be a useful force.
Pogba described the Champions League as “a trophy I think about, I always have it in mind” back in 2018, and he can demonstrate that burning desire by producing strong performances for United in the competition’s knockout rounds this season.
Pogba laughed and joked with Bruno Fernandes after the final at Elland Road on Sunday, and he’s appeared visibly relaxed and happy since his return from injury, but nothing would clearly make him happier than a serious Champions League challenge.
The 28-year-old probably expected to have played in a few more Champions League finals by this point in his career, but that hasn’t happened at United. That doesn’t mean it can’t happen, even in the most unlikely and disastrous campaign.
The demands of knockout football may suit United in a season in which they only appear capable of playing well for short periods of time during games. Pogba has played in a Champions League final, a European Championship final, and a World Cup final with France. He was outstanding in all of those contests, and United will be hoping to see more of that big-game player in the future.
Pogba has the chance to rebuild his legacy at United. He’ll need his teammates to deliver in spades, for them to find something they haven’t found all season, and United will need luck, but it’s not out of the question.
A valiant effort in the Champions League by Manchester United would certainly salvage some dignity from a disappointing season.
It would also mean that history would look back on Pogba’s time at the club more favorably.