When Kylian Mbappe was growing up, and debate about Leo Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo grew to its most intense, there was only ever one man for the young Parisian child. He was all about Ronaldo, the walls of his bedroom covered in pictures of the Portuguese.
And yet now, there’s probably only one man ahead of Mbappe as a professional footballer, and it isn’t his idol.
There is currently a very strong argument that the 20-year-old is the best player in the Champions League, and thereby the world, after Messi.
While that is obviously not to say Mbappe is anywhere close to Ronaldo in terms of achievement and legacy – somewhat undercutting the oddly-phrased pre-match question to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer over whether he is “a legend” – it comes down to something much more basic, much more visceral.
If you are a Manchester United defender in the Parc des Princes on Wednesday, or basically any defender anywhere, who would you rather be facing?
It’s that simple a question, and that difficult to face these players. But there may still be a difference.
While Messi retains the same physical level and burst, and has probably become an even better player in terms of all-round game – operating on a level of awareness and perception that maybe no one in history has reached – Ronaldo has quite clearly become more constrained, more minimalist. This isn’t to say the Juventus star isn’t still one of the best in the world, but compare his more reserved approach to the rampaging of Mbappe.
Ronaldo has become a player defenders have to be so alert to, and really concentrate on, because of how he exposes sudden slips. Mbappe is however just a player who – in the words of Solskjaer himself – “terrifies you” because he can just create those slips out of nowhere. That remains the distilled power of pure pace. There is no weapon in the game like it, and it means there is no player right now like Mbappe.
What really elevates him, of course, is how he maximises and focuses that pace with the fine intelligence of his play. The World Cup winner is, as Arsene Wenger argued, a pure footballer.
That is probably why he’s the most awesome in that regard since a young Brazilian Ronaldo, and maybe a 26-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo.
The wondrous way in which Mbappe bursts can just take any “good plan” – which is what Solskjaer emphasised United will need on Wednesday – out of the equation altogether. There’s almost no legislating for it, no real defending it.
It is actually a bit of mind-melt to think that Mbappe was still a mere child when Ronaldo and Messi were at the peak of their duel, and that he’s already being talked of in similar terms and potentially splitting them. The speed of his rise just appropriately reflects the speed of his running.
He’s already made a huge impact on a World Cup, as well as one whole Champions League season with Monaco in 2016-17, but now just needs to more fully dominate the club game’s elite competition in the way Ronaldo and Messi regularly have.
This could well be Mbappe’s season, having already set such a pace, and a tone. He has gone someway to deciding this last-16 tie with United after his strike in the first-leg, and is the player who can just destroy anything Solskjaer tries to do on Wednesday in an instant.
That is what really stands about him, and why he has probably strode ahead of Ronaldo: that ability to just devastate a contest in a millisecond, in a way you can do nothing about.
Mbappe just has to keep doing it, so he achieves everything he should, and such questions about his present status go beyond the debate.
One thing you can already be certain of: no defender wants him as the player looking to go beyond him.
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