In triumph, the Juventus players walked over to the away end at the Castellani to celebrate with the travelling fans. Paul Pogba was not among them. Calls for him to come over were not heeded. He instead walked straight down the tunnel, accompanied by Juventus’ medical staff, a preoccupied look on his face.

Pogba had come on in the final half-hour against Empoli as he had done a week ago in the 1-1 draw with Bologna. Minutes later, he volleyed in what looked like the clinching goal. It would have been Pogba’s first in Juventus colours since his return to the club, another encouraging sign on the back of his role in Dusan Vlahovic’s equaliser at the Allianz Stadium last weekend.

Unfortunately for him, semi-automated offside ruled out the goal. Vlahovic, who had already missed a penalty, strayed behind the Empoli defence when the ball he knocked down for Pogba to strike so sweetly was played. Nevertheless, the technique of the finish refreshed the memory of Pogba’s immense talent. He is, on paper, the answer to Juventus’ disjointed midfield. The team’s deep-lying playmaker Manuel Locatelli was last week booed off by a demanding crowd that misses the likes of Andrea Pirlo and Miralem Pjanic. He does not possess Pogba’s passing range and as much was clear in some of the effortless switches the Frenchman played on Sunday night in Tuscany.

“We hope his knee leaves him in peace,” was the hope expressed by Juventus’ assistant coach Marco Landucci in the moments after Pogba’s first appearance of the season at home to Bologna. But late in the game against Empoli, the former €105m (£90m; $112.5m) player lurched into an awkward challenge with full-back Bartosz Bereszynski and no longer looked right. Pogba managed to make it to full time but he moved around gingerly. Giancarlo Marocchi, the former Juventus midfielder on co-comms for Sky Italia, thought he was thinking more about his body than what was going on around him.

It recalled the traumatic events in mid-May when Pogba made his one and only start of last season against relegation bound Cremonese. It ended 20 minutes later with Pogba sitting down on the pitch, head in his hands, tears streaking down his face as a torn quadricep ended a campaign that never got going. Sunday was less dramatic and a scan at the J Medical facility back in Turin the following morning brought a sigh of relief. No tear showed up on the screen as the doctor rolled the ultrasound over his right thigh. Pogba had merely overworked the muscle above his healing knee.

But the anxiety it caused in the moment was understandable. This is a player still tentatively feeling his way back to fitness. In an interview with the French magazine Views, Pogba called last season the “biggest test of my life”. He said he’s aged “10 years in seven months”. As the victim of an alleged extortion plot that led him to be placed under police protection and culminated in the arrest and subsequent release of his brother, Mathias, the toll was major.

Pogba was denied a goal at Empoli (Giuseppe Maffia/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

His agent and “second mother” Rafaela Pimenta explained to Tuttosport: “Experiencing tense situations and blackmail is not uncommon for footballers. They’re threatened because they’re very exposed. I’ve seen it all, especially blackmail. Players are afraid to report these things either because they fear for their image or they’re ashamed. So they stay silent and experience unbelievable stress, which can compromise performance and even lead to injury.”

Pogba tore the lateral meniscus of his right knee during Juventus’ 2022 summer tour of the U.S. He opted against undergoing surgery in order to give himself a chance of being fit for the World Cup. It was the wrong decision. Pogba wasted a month and lost a season, succumbing to an operation almost a year to this day.

He would reflect: “The head controls everything. Your body will follow suit when your head is not right. If you tell yourself: ‘Yeah, I’ll be alright’. You’re a footballer. It’s fine. Your body will follow suit. And so I think the root cause of all these injuries that have happened to me was in my head.” Off-the-field issues tensed him up. “I wanted to come back so quickly, to play and show people, to shut everyone up,” Pogba added. “It was a blow and that’s why I took a step back and thought about myself and my wellbeing.”

Setbacks have followed comebacks. His start against Cremonese in May came a matter of days after he set up Federico Gatti’s equaliser in the first leg of Juventus’ Europa League semi-final against Sevilla. Sunday’s second cameo in a row followed his aforementioned pre-assist for Vlahovic’s leveller against Bologna. They remind us that Pogba has been remarkably decisive in short spaces of time while short of match rhythm. “I’m happy to be back doing the thing I love most in the world,” he said after the Bologna game.

If only he could play more than half an hour. Alas, Pogba has yet to do so in any of the 12 appearances of his second spell at Juventus and that’s despite him returning to Turin a week before the start of pre-season in order to get ready. “He hasn’t had a day’s holiday,” Pimenta said. “It’s no burden to him. He can’t wait to start over.”

But Pogba played no role in the tour of the U.S. and Allegri admitted “we don’t know when he can get back to training with the rest of the team”. He has tried to manage expectation, calling for patience and expressing regret at his intermittent availability. “Not having Paul practically all last season definitely penalised us,” Allegri said.

Pogba in pain and despair after tearing his quadricep against Cremonese (Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images)

Naturally, there has been speculation about Pogba’s future over the summer. The anticipation UEFA would ban Juventus from Europe for a year has forced a change of model. Veterans like Leonardo Bonucci, Juan Cuadrado and Angel Di Maria were let go in an effort to bring the wage bill and the average age of the squad down. Pogba is the highest-paid footballer at the club and during a transfer window in which the Saudi Pro League helped relieve clubs of luxury players, his visit to Al Ittihad’s training ground while on a religious pilgrimage to Mecca in July understandably attracted attention.

Confronted by reporters as he came through arrivals at Turin’s Caselle airport, Pogba, in thobe and keffiyeh, released no comment. He is still a Juventus player. Rumours in Turkey last week that he was undergoing a medical at Galatasaray on the back of their qualification for the Champions League were rubbished. It turned out the Turkish champions were pursuing Tanguy Ndombele instead.

If Pogba can get fit, stay fit and trust his body again, he has the talent to be Serie A’s best midfielder. A vacuum has been left by Marcelo Brozovic and Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, both of whom left for the Saudi Pro League. His competition, Stanislav Lobotka at Napoli, Nicolo Barella at Inter Milan and the AC Milan new boys Tijjani Reijnders and Ruben Loftus-Cheek do not have his star power. No Serie A player has Pogba’s Instagram following. He should be the face of the league, a transcendent figure in the way Victor Osimhen, Rafael Leao and Lautaro Martinez are yet to become.

But it remains to be seen how much Juventus can count on him.

When Allegri named Bonucci’s successor as captain, his choice was telling. He went with the dependable and almost ever-present Danilo, who’ll be supported by vice-captains Adrien Rabiot and the longest-serving member of the current squad, Alex Sandro. It wasn’t a snub of Pogba, whose leadership qualities came to the fore when France won the 2018 World Cup, but as was the case with Bonucci last year, it acknowledged the need for an on-field presence. The honour can’t be ceremonial. Pogba, who often trained away from the group last year, will still have influence, but only as much as his physical condition and performances allow.

“I’m only 30,” Pogba said after the Bologna game, “and I want to bring silverware and joy to these fans.” It’s what the crowd at the Allianz want. It’s what he wants. Juve’s stated objective for the season is quite humble by their standards: a quick return to the Champions League. Last year, on the back of Pogba’s return, it was loftier; a 37th Scudetto. Right now, the overall mood is one of caution, a caution embodied in Pogba and a right knee that continues to cause aggravation.

(Top photo: Giuseppe Maffia/NurPhoto via Getty Images)