The two strikers used to play together in Sicily and are now two of the most exciting attacking talents in European football.
(All statistics are correct as of 18/09)
It is a wonder, looking back now, that Palermo did not amass maximum points in their Serie B promotion season of 2013/14. The Sicilian side may have finished 14 points clear of second-placed Empoli as they returned to the top tier of Italian football at the first time of asking, yet in hindsight you would perhaps expect them to have dominated the second division to an even greater extent given the presence of Paulo Dybala and Andrea Belotti on the club’s books at the same time.
Four years on and the two attackers will face off in the Turin derby on Saturday night, as Dybala’s Juventus lock horns with Belotti’s Torino at the J-Stadium. Both players were linked with big-money moves elsewhere in the summer, Dybala reportedly a target for Barcelona and Belotti earning admiring glances from the likes of Milan and Chelsea. In the end, though, the former Palermo forwards opted to stay put for at least another year, much to the relief of their respective employers in Turin.
It is somewhat surprising to look back now and realise that Abel Hernandez (currently at Championship outfit Hull City) and Kyle Lafferty (now with Hearts in the Scottish Premiership) both outscored Belotti and Dybala in 2013/14. Granted, the latter pair were in the infancy of their careers at that stage, yet it is also true that neither seemed destined for the very top back then; Belotti’s return of 10 goals in 24 league appearances was respectable if nothing more, while Dybala netted only half that amount in 30 games and was not as essential to the team as one would presume in retrospect.
Yet Dybala certainly proved his worth the following campaign, scoring 13 goals and providing 10 assists as Palermo secured a comfortable mid-table finish under the guidance of Beppe Iachini. Belotti, by contrast, struggled to make an impression in Serie A, scoring six goals and starting just nine games. A few months later, in August 2015, he was sold to Torino for a fee thought to be in the region of €7.5m.
Around the same time, Dybala set Juventus back an initial €32.5m after outspoken Palermo owner Maurizio Zamparini claimed the Argentinian would be better than Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo within two years. And while Dybala has not yet done enough to dethrone the game’s foremost superstars, Zamparini’s statement was evidently not as over-the-top as many suspected when the former Instituto man was still a relative unknown on the global stage.
The 23-year-old shot to the top of the Serie A scoring charts at the weekend, as his hat-trick – which comprised a superb first-time finish from 30 yards, a cheeky outside-of-the-boot effort and a perfect curled free-kick – helped Juventus to a 3-1 win at Sassuolo. Dybala has already found the back of the net on eight occasions in the league this term, which means at the time of writing he is averaging a remarkable two goals per game – and he did not even start one of those matches, a 3-0 defeat of Chievo earlier this month.
Whereas Dybala is more of a No.10 than an out-and-out striker, Belotti is a traditional No.9. The 23-year-old scored 26 goals in Serie A last term, with all but one of them coming from inside the penalty area. He is not a static centre-forward who simply waits for chances to come his way, though; Belotti provided seven assists in 2016/17 and is adept at linking the play, holding the ball up and running the channels when required. The statistics demonstrate that the Italy international is a penalty-box poacher, but that is not the sum total of his gifts.
Dybala is the more naturally talented of the two players and could genuinely become Ballon d’Or quality at some point in the next few seasons. Belotti will probably never reach those heights, but he is nevertheless one of the best young strikers around at the moment and a player who could well be plying his trade at one of Europe’s biggest clubs this time next year.
“He still has room for improvement, but at times he is just unplayable,” Juve boss Max Allegri said of Dybala after the triumph at Sassuolo on Saturday. “He is turning into an extraordinary player.”
A victory over the same opponents in August, meanwhile, prompted Torino coach Sinisa Mihajlovic to proclaim: “Belotti is not yet at his best, but with that goal [the striker scored a sensational scissor kick] he showed he is worth €100m.”
The former Palermo team-mates will be desperate to outdo one another on Saturday evening, when the outcome of the Derby della Mole could be determined by which of Dybala or Belotti shines the brightest.
By Greg Lea
Greg Lea is a freelance football writer for FourFourTwo, The Blizzard and various others. Follow his Twitter account @GregLeaFootball for anything and everything related to soccer and more.