Inside Paul Pogba's nightmare Juventus return: Injuries, blackmail and a fan backlash
Paul Pogba's back!... Well, hopefully. The France international has been included in the Juventus squad for Tuesday's Serie A clash with Torino, but nobody is getting ahead of themselves. The Bianconeri have been burned before, after all.
Indeed, Pogba's return to Turin has just been one big, long disappointment to date, featuring one injury setback after another.
So, as the midfielder looks to belatedly make his second debut for the Bianconeri, GOAL breaks down a seemingly dream deal for Juve that has thus far proven a nightmare for everyone involved...
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"Paul is back in Turin. He left as a boy and returns as a man and a champion, but there is one thing that has not changed – the desire to write unforgettable pages of club history together once more. Pogba is back and we couldn’t be happier."
That official statement confirming Pogba's return to Juventus last summer perfectly encapsulated the excitement surrounding the free transfer.
And it was understandable, to a degree. Juve had paid nothing to re-sign a player they had sold to Manchester United in 2016 for a then-world record £89 million ($100m).
He was still only 29, too. The hope was that the Bianconeri would at least get a couple more stellar seasons out of Pogba, who had played the best football of his club career during his first stint in Turin.
𝗜𝗧'𝗦 𝗢𝗙𝗙𝗜𝗖𝗜𝗔𝗟! @paulpogba is 🔙 in ⚪️⚫️🤩#POGBACK— JuventusFC 🇬🇧🇺🇸 (@juventusfcen) July 11, 2022
However, there were two major doubts surrounding the deal.
Firstly, Pogba was not joining a Juve squad with anything like the same level of quality as the one he had left, and there had long been concerns over his ability to shine without world-class players around him.
Secondly, and far more significantly, Pogba's recent injury record at Old Trafford could not be construed as anything but troubling.
In his final three seasons in Manchester, he had been sidelined with injury on eight separate occasions, and with a variety of ailments. His final appearance for United had actually come in April of last year, when he limped off in a 4-0 defeat at Liverpool.
There was, then, a legitimate question mark over Pogba's fitness, and it would not take long for us to get an answer...
A hugely controversial call
Pogba officially rejoined Juve on July 11. Less than two weeks later, he broke down in training ahead of a pre-season friendly with Barcelona in Dallas.
"Following complaining of pain in his right knee, Paul Pogba underwent radiological examinations that revealed a lesion of the lateral meniscus," the club explained. "In the next few hours he will undergo a specialist orthopaedic consultation. Therefore, in order to continue treatment, he is not taking part in the trip to Dallas."
As it transpired, he would not take part in either of Juve's two remaining friendlies in the United States, with 45 minutes against Chivas de Guadalajara ending up the sum total of his contribution to the entire tour.
He instead returned to Italy on July 23 for further evaluation before then flying to Lyon on August 1 to consult a knee specialist. The following day, he made a hugely controversial call, deciding against surgery and opting instead to undergo a more 'conservative' therapy.
Allegri's public response to Pogba's preferred course of action was telling. "What do I think? I don't think, I have relied on what was said and the decision that was made. I'm not a doctor," he told reporters at the time.
"Conservative therapy has been adopted, within five-to-six weeks he will be able to be on the field. You have to have confidence. That was the decision, then we'll see if it was right or wrong."
Pogba's thinking was obvious: he wanted to play in the World Cup, and he didn't want to jeopardise his participation in Qatar 2022 by undergoing an operation.
It would prove a very costly error of judgement, though, a gamble that backfired badly...
His brother and attempted blackmail
A month of this 'conservative' therapy failed to yield the desired result and, on September 3, Pogba belatedly underwent surgery on his knee.
"The operation went very well, I'm going to recover and come back very, very quickly," he vowed in a social media post. "I wanted to thank you all for your messages, for your support.
"Know that mentally I'm okay despite all the worries, the injury, and the other problems."
Thank you guys for all the messages and support!— Paul Pogba (@paulpogba) September 6, 2022
I'll be back soon - and stronger than ever! 💪🏾 pic.twitter.com/nGgqqz8s6C
Those other problems were no trifling matter. Indeed, it's important to note that Pogba's injury struggles were played out against the backdrop of a devastating familial drama.
On August 28, Pogba's brother Mathias posted a video online promising "explosive" revelations about the midfielder, and his agent, Rafaela Pimenta.
“The French, Italian, English and Spanish public deserve to know certain things,” Mathias’ Pogba said. “Basically, the whole world, including my brother’s fans, France, Juventus and his sponsors, they need to have the information and take an informed decision on whether he deserves respect and love from the fans; if he deserves to play for Juventus and a place in the France World Cup squad.
“I want to open the eyes on the so-called most powerful woman in football, who my brother calls his second mum (Pimenta). I think that what I’ll say will concern many people. I’ll say important things about Kylian Mbappe. Many elements and witnesses confirm what I’ll say. It could be explosive.”
Pogba's legal team immediately confirmed that they were already aware of the claims – which included an allegation that the player had hired a witchdoctor to place a spell on France team-mate Mbappe, of whom he was supposedly jealous – and explained that they were linked to an extortion plot by an organised crime gang.
Pogba had already informed French police that he had been threatened by two hooded men armed with assault rifles in Paris on March 19 of last year and, among other things, had his mobile phone taken away from him, as well as being ordered to pay £11 million ($14m) in owed 'protection fees'. Pogba had also gone to the Italian authorities after being subject to further threats and acts of intimidation in Turin.
Four people, including Mathias, were eventually arrested on September 14, though the former forward was released from prison on December 23.
World Cup woe
After Pogba had finally gone under the knife, it was expected that he would be sidelined for eight weeks.
However, just after resuming athletic work, Pogba was struck down by a thigh problem just above his weakened right knee on October 19, casting considerable doubt on his availability for the World Cup.
V happy to be on the green again! ⚪⚫ #ForzaJuve pic.twitter.com/fNv33MK9yj— Paul Pogba (@paulpogba) October 18, 2022
The bad news was finally confirmed by Pimenta on October 31: "Following yesterday and today's medical review in Torino and Pittsburgh, it is extremely painful to inform Paul will still need recovery time from his surgery.
"For this reason, Paul will not be able to join the Juventus squad before the World Cup break nor the French national team in Qatar.
"If wishful thinking would change things, Paul would be playing tomorrow. But what changes things are hard work, resilience and discipline, all of which are the only things in Paul's mind at these challenging times.
"Paul will continue working, giving his very best to be back on the pitch for the fans and his team as soon as possible."
Yet another setback
During the World Cup, Pogba spent time in Milan working closely with a club physio, undertaking plenty of pool and gym work as part of a personalised rehab programme.
However, when quizzed before Christmas on Pogba's potential involvement in Juve's first competitive fixture after the international break, against Cremonese, Allegri admitted that he still didn't know when the Frenchman would be fit to return.
Pogba eventually rejoined the group on January 10 and subsequently scored twice in an in-house friendly against Juve's reserve team.
On January 28, Allegri revealed in a press conference that Pogba was finally available for selection again, and included the World Cup winner in his squad for the Serie A clash with Monza in Turin the following day.
Pogba spent the entire game on the bench, though, and there were immediate reports that he had suffered yet another setback (a flexor problem) in the warm-up.
Patience running out?
On the surface, Allegri remained supportive. "It takes a while to get back in shape," the Bianconeri boss said on February 2. "It takes time for Pogba. Nobody can work miracles. His body must adapt.
"We must use him wisely and in the right moment when he will be fit."
However, Allegri had grown visibly irritated by all of the questions and constant speculation surrounding Pogba's fitness.
It had also been claimed in the Italian press that, as far back as October, Juve's previous board of directors – all of whom had resigned the following month due to an unrelated investigation into the club's finances – had tried to remove some of the agreed bonuses in Pogba's contract because of his ongoing injury issues.
Some fans had also grown frustrated with Pogba's off-field activities during his spell on the sidelines. There was a perception that he could have been doing more to get himself back on the field of play, particularly after he posted a picture of himself on a ski slope on December 27.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, a story emerged in the Italian press after his failure to get off the bench in Monza claiming that Pogba had privately pledged his future to the club; that he wouldn't consider leaving even if they failed to secure qualification for next season's Champions League.
It felt like both an attempt to get the fans back onside and, perhaps more importantly, a bid to convince Juve, who have once again been linked with a summer move for Lazio's Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, that they can still count on him.
However, as Juve legend Gigi Buffon told Pogba many, many years ago, the only thing that matters is what happens on the field. Talk is cheap in Turin. The only thing this club cares about is winning, and Juve will only keep faith in Pogba if he proves he can help them do just that.
This, then, is arguably the most important conclusion to a season in Pogba's career.
Having been included in the matchday squad for Tuesday's clash with Torino, the onus is now on him to prove between now and the end of the 2022-23 campaign that not only can he stay fit, but that he can still be the player that once wowed Juve fans on a weekly basis.
That really is Pogba's only way out of this ongoing nightmare...