Manchester United face a tall order trying to kill Kylian Mbappe's momentum
The Paris Saint-Germain forward is in prolific form ahead of Wednesday's Champions League last-16 return leg
Kylian Mbappe turned 20 years old only in December. He has had the sort of teenage career that no sportsman would willingly wave goodbye to, and the sort of so-much-so-young success that older observers fear too often leads to an early plateau, and then a descent.
On the evidence of his first two-and-a-half months of his 21st year, Mbappe is rather enjoying his maturity. Circumstances have demanded he take a grown-up, leadership role in his club side, Paris Saint-Germain, with injuries absenting Neymar and Edinson Cavani from the action for a portion in 2019. Mbappe’s response to a lack of senior striking partners? Thirteen goals in his last 11 Ligue 1 and Uefa Champions League matches.
Among them, the second of PSG’s goals at Manchester United last month in the 2-0 first-leg win that gives them a clear sight of the quarter-finals going into the second leg in France. There will be no Neymar, Cavani may only be recovered enough from his latest muscle strain to take a seat on the bench, but the hazards facing a United obliged to push for an early goal barely seemed diminished for that. They know Mbappe has a momentum that at the moment seems quite irresistible.
There were occasions, at Old Trafford, where his phenomenal speed over 5-10 metres drew the customary sharpe intakes of breath around the stadium, gasps at what looked like a kid on a skateboard zooming past panting pedestrians. Those bursts are an Mpabbe trademark, but by no means his only exceptional skill. In the coming-of-age of Kylian, the prodigy who only made his first Champions League start, with Monaco, two years ago and has already reached 14 career goals in the competition, his reliability as a finisher improves by the week.
There are still moments that tell of an overhasty kid in front of goal - a badly misplaced shot featured in his Old Trafford showreel - but they are less frequent, or seem to make up a smaller ratio of his misses-to-hits percentages. And there is an evident hunger for chasing the sort of goalscoring records that set the great strikers apart, men like his boyhood hero Cristiano Ronaldo. “He wants to become one of the best of all-time,” said his manager Thomas Tuchel in broadcast interviews ahead of Wednesday’s hosting of United, “which means he often challenges me and those around him.”
And from Neymar, recuperating from a metatarsal break in his foot, these remarks last week: “He has it in him to become even better than he is already. He is a phenomenon, one of the great names in world football.”
Neymar, the elected icon of PSG when the club shattered the word-record transfer fee to trigger the Brazilian's €222 million (Dh924m) buyout clause from Barcelona in 2017, can only sense that Mbappe, seven years his junior, is designated as the long-term figurehead for PSG. He comes from the Paris region, and is already on course to set enduring standards for the France national team, with whom he won the World Cup last July, scoring in the final, the first teenager to do that since Brazil’s Pele 60 years earlier.
He won a Ligue 1 title - with Monaco - at age 18 and another with PSG last year. He already has 53 goals in the French top division, and 24 from this season, struck at a goal every 70 minutes.
Granted, there is a legitimate scepticism that for lavishly-resourced PSG, domestic goals are easily registered against some opponents, but Mbappe would correct that idea. “We don’t go around as tourists,” he said after his double in Saturday’s 2-1 win at Caen, “and as our coach keeps telling us, every game is the best training for the big games coming up.”
Wednesday is one of those, a test of Mbappe’s maturity in a PSG at less than full-strength, and of the club’s fortitude. Two away goals represent a comfortable cushion, but this is PSG, a club very mindful of their past difficulties in the knockout phase of the Champions League, and haunted by the 6-1 second-leg defeat they suffered against Barcelona, trying to protect a 4-0 first-leg lead, two seasons ago.
That was the year PSG broke the bank to sign Neymar, and, in the same summer, the dashing teen Mbappe from Monaco, a snatch they achieved in the face of fierce competition for his signature from Real Madrid. And this might turn out to be the year where the younger superstar eclipses the older superstar in his importance to the club.
Updated: March 6, 2019 08:04 AM