There were no fans inside the Camp Nou to see, but those fortunate enough to be inside the famous old stadium on February 16 witnessed a changing of the guard at the top of European football. This pitch, and the sport’s elite level, had long been Lionel Messi’s domain. On this particular night, though, Kylian Mbappe made the place his own.
The Frenchman’s stunning hat trick in Paris Saint-Germain’s 4-1 win over Barcelona in the first leg of their Champions League last 16 tie prompted widespread discussion. For many, it was proof of Mbappe’s standing as the next best player in world football as the era of Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo starts to fade.
Kylian Mbappe, however. Might already be the best player in world football. The shift at the top of the sport might have already happened, with the 22-year-old more potent than any other forward in this season’s Champions League. He followed up his sparkling display against Barcelona wither another eye-catching performance away to Bayern Munich, in which he bagged a brace.
Even when Mbappe doesn’t find the back of net, he is the dominant force on the pitch. Look at the second leg of the Champions League quarter final between PSG and Bayern Munich – the Bavarians won, but Mbappe’s threat on the break prevented them from suffocating their opponents. He was the deciding factor in the tie
Only Robert Lewandowski (40) has scored more club goals than Kylian Mbappe (35). As things stand, the voting for the 2021 Ballon d’Or will surely be between these two and with Lewandowski sidelined through injury the French forward has been able to underline his case. Mbappe’s PSG side have already eliminated Bayern Munich from the Champions League
Messi might still be unmatched as a dribbler and pass master, while Ronaldo continues to possess the natural instincts of a true poacher, but Kylian Mbappe is the trickiest forward to play against in all of football at this moment in time. Opposition defenders in both Ligue 1 and the Champions League have found this to their cost.
Give Mbappe space, as if a common tactic against players with pace, and the 22-year-old will simply surge past. Go tight to him, though, and he has the quick feet and technical ability to beat an opponent that way too. Mbappe can play on the wing or through the middle. He can operate in a front three or as one half of a two-man strike partnership.
Erling Haaland is widely seen as Mbappe’s equal, as the Ronaldo to the Frenchman’s Messi, but the Norwegian showed in two underwhelming performances against Manchester City this month that he still has some developing to do. On the other hand, Kylian Mbappe, a World Cup winner and a Champions League finalist, is the finished article. He might only be 22, but he is at the peak of his powers.
If PSG go on to win the Champions League this season, Mbappe’s contribution as an individual in the competition will have been greater than any player’s in recent memory. The Champions League is where the best players make their mark in the modern game and Mbappe has certainly done that this season.
Comparing players of different positions and qualities isn’t the most scientific of pursuits, but there is a natural urge to do so as football fans having pitted Messi and Ronaldo against each other for over a decade. Now, though, a new standard has been set and it’s Kylian Mbappe leading the way. The Frenchman may well be European football’s man for the future, but he’s also its man for right now. He could finish 2021 with one big eared trophy and another golden ball to prove it.
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