Mbappe, Haaland in a league of their own

Updated on Feb 20, 2021 05:44 PM IST

Lightning fast, peerless skills and an insatiable appetite for goal; the two young strikers are setting European football on fire.

Kylian Mbappe in action. (File)(Agencies)
Kylian Mbappe in action. (File)(Agencies)
By, Bhargab Sarmah

In 2018, Javier Mascherano, then 34, retired from international football after Kylian Mbappe showed him in Kazan that the struggle probably wasn’t worth it anymore.

It’s 2021, and Mbappe—now faster, stronger and more skilled at 22—is still threatening to end careers.

After their 4-1 demolition at the hands of PSG, Barcelona’s Gerard Pique, now 34, may not have made up his mind but he sat alone looking desultory soon after the cameras showed Mbappe walking away with a smile and the match ball. Pique, with a career longer than Mascherano at Barcelona, had said he would be the first to leave if needed after the 2-8 defeat to Bayern Munich last August.

Also read: Zidane praises Mbappe for hat trick at Camp Nou

The similarities between the pre-quarter finals of the World Cup and this season’s Champions League don’t end there. Like Argentina, Barcelona are not known for pace. Mbappe is, was then too. Comparisons with Brazil’s Ronaldo had begun then, comparisons stoked further by Mbappe’s hattrick at Camp Nou on Tuesday—the first on a European night at Barcelona since Dynamo Kiev’s Andriy Shevchenko in 1997. After Mbappe’s brace against Argentina in 2018, France coach Didier Deschamps, while comparing Ronaldo to “fulgurant” (dazzling in French), had said: “I think Kylian is even quicker…He is 19, he will make a lot of progress.”

Mbappe’s goals in Paris St Germain’s 4-1 win encapsulated technique, strength, skill and pace. Between his Champions League debut with two goals for Monaco against Borussia Dortmund—who now have their own shooting star in Erling Braut Haaland—and now, Mbappe has won four league titles, a World Cup and is the first teenager since Pele in 1958 to score in a World Cup final. Mbappe’s goal and that from Paul Pogba, off his assist, sucked out Croatia’s bid to launch another comeback in that final. In 2019-20, Mbappe also played the Champions League final. Only Edinson Cavani (200 in 301 games) and Zlatan Ibrahimovic (156 in 180) have more goals for PSG than Mbappe’s 111 (153 games).

“The great footballers write their stories in the biggest matches,” said PSG coach Mauricio Pochettino. Antoine Griezmann, who converted the penalty Mbappe won after a strong run against Argentina but was on the opposite side this week, said: “PSG have a star for the future who will be at the same level as Leo Messi and Cristiano (Ronaldo).”

In the World Cup, Deschamps used Mbappe’s speed to exploit space, some of which would be created by Olivier Giroud dropping off. Over the past two seasons, Mbappe has played more as centre-forward—117 games, according to transfermarkt, with 89 goals and 48 assists. Against Barcelona, Mbappe though played on the left, the numbers for which are: 36 games 19 goals and 11 assists. That he and Neymar can play left and centre should be a good problem for Pochettino.

At a time when organised pressing is as much a part of football as shin guards, the idea of bursting through seems inconceivable and yet Mbappe did exactly that, leaving Pique desperately latching on to his shirt. It was an image of the electric and the static and summed up the fortunes of the two clubs: one transitioning and another making light of the absence of Neymar, Angel di Maria and with a coach only 40 days old.

A blonde assassin

Predominantly left-footed, Haaland, 20, is more a work in progress than Mbappe but they share a number of traits: strength, skill, speed, power and positional awareness. Against PSG in February 2020, Haaland ran 60 metres in 6.64 seconds as Dortmund counter-attacked; the timing would have helped him make the final of the 60m in the world indoor championships in 2018. Both come from supremely athletic families:

Mbappe’s older brother Jires played as winger for Rennes and Bursapor; Haaland’s father Alfie played in the Premier League and for Norway. Mbappe’s mother played handball in the French first division and Haaland’s mum was a national champion heptathlete in Norway.

Both can be an outlet to play wide and scored similar goals this week; off the left foot from close and made powerful runs that produced goals.

"I love the Champions League and when I saw Mbappe score the hat-trick yesterday I got free motivation, so thanks to him. It was a nice evening," Haaland, who has 18 goals in 13 Champions League appearances, said.

Mbappe had scored 19 Champions League goals before turning 21. Haaland's 21st birthday is in July.

“If he (Haaland) gets the ball on his left foot, for example, and he protects the ball, he can beat any goalkeeper in the world,” Borussia Dortmund’s Thomas Meunier had told Asian journalists earlier this week.

Haaland also showed his control and strength in breaking free from a crowd and finding Mahmoud Dahoud for the first goal in Dortmund’s 3-2 win on Wednesday, following his assist with a run down the middle that took out a defender.

For Meunier, Haaland is an “old school striker” while Mbappe “is technically really, really good” and reminded him of Thierry Henry. “In the coming years, they will take the steps needed to be the best in the world,” he said. Against Barcelona and Sevilla, they looked to have done just that.

England striker Gary Lineker’s recent tweet summed it up: "Goals since the start of last season in the Champions League: Messi and Ronaldo combined = 15. Haaland and Mbappe combined = 28."


    Dhiman Sarkar is based in Kolkata with over two decades as a sports journalist. He writes mainly on football.

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