On big night, Kylian Mbappe shines brightest
The French attacker may leave PSG but not before trying to win a first Champions League trophy.
Luka Modric’s anxious look said it all. Dani Carvajal had redeemed himself after slipping and letting Kylian Mbappe cut in from the left and nothing happened from the resultant corner but Modric had seen enough football to know how this night could go. The Champions League round-of-16 tie was 11 minutes old.
By the time the tight contest was decided, Carlo Ancelotti was calling Mbappe the best player in Europe. “He is so decisive,” said the Real Madrid coach. Gianluigi Donnarumma was more effusive. “He is an alien,” the Paris St-Germain (PSG) goalkeeper told Sky Sports of his teammate. Almost four years ago, Gerard Pique had said the same of Lionel Messi, and given Mbappe’s performance in Paris on Tuesday, this didn’t seem inappropriate.
“It’s a show with Kylian, on and off the pitch. We enjoy Kylian every day,” said Donnarumma after pointing out that whether this 23-year-old wondrous talent will stay in Paris or move to Real Madrid is up to him.
Mbappe speaking to some television channels in Spanish could be a hint but the goal-scorer in PSG’s 1-0 win didn’t reveal anything about whether he would go to the club keen on him since 2017. Since his contract has six months to run, Mbappe is free to negotiate with clubs now but has said he is not going to talk to an “opponent.” On Tuesday, he told the digital platform Movistar: “I have not decided on my future. I play for Paris St-Germain, one of the best clubs in the world.” This was not long after he was standing in front of delirious home team fans, arms spread wide.
Mbappe scored in the 94th minute but could have in the 17th, 49th and 77th. Thibaut Courtois denied him twice—he also stopped a Lionel Messi penalty won by, who else, Mbappe after a clumsy challenge from Carvajal and was instrumental in keeping Real in the tie—and having opened his shoulders, Mbappe went narrowly wide for the third. He scored from a similar effort just when a defensive-minded Real—they had no shots on target (PSG had eight), and given how deep they sat, UEFA scrapping the away goals rule seemed to have fetched the opposite of what it intended—thought they had earned a point.
The move was started by Presnel Kimpembe and had Mbappe slicing a pass for Neymar before moving up the left channel, a corridor through which the French attacking player had tormented Real from the first minute when he sprayed a pass wide for Angel di Maria. An exquisite back-heel from Neymar, exactly why PSG have assembled a forwardline that cost a billion euros, sent Mbappe on his way.
With the ball on his right foot, Mbappe cut in and dropped his left shoulder, which got Lucas Vazquez to commit one way, straightened and arrowed between Vazquez and Eder Militao before shooting even as another challenge flew in. Casemiro banging the pitch with his hand and Mbappe finding himself at the bottom of a PSG players’ heap briefly encapsulated the twin imposters of agony and ecstasy in one frame before the focus shifted to the celebrations. PSG are now a draw away from the quarter-finals.
“I saved some but Mbappe showed his quality and his class in the last action,” Courtois was quoted as saying on Spanish television.
This was Mbappe’s 22nd goal in 30 games for PSG this term. To that incredible strike rate, add 13 assists and it is not difficult to fathom why Ancelotti said what he did. According to UEFA, Mbappe has been involved in 51 goals in 53 Champions League games. He has scored 13 goals in his last 13 Champions League games. Squawka Football has found out that in one game no one has had as many touches (18) in the rival penalty box since the 2016-17 Champions League. Mbappe has 14 goals in the Champions League knockout stages. Only Cristiano Ronaldo has more, with 23, since Mbappe debuted in the competition.
The Frenchman’s performance was reminiscent of David Beckham’s at Old Trafford when Real came calling in the 2003 Champions League. Ronaldo, the Brazilian phenomenon, scored a hattrick that night to seal the tie and got a standing ovation from Manchester United fans but as a second-half substitute, Beckham had scored twice in a 4-3 win, one of them from a delightful free-kick. Beckham joined Real that year.
PSG coach Mauricio Pochettino has had his share of problems with a star-studded forward line not known for pressing. But on Tuesday, he got full backs Achraf Hakimi and Nuno Mendes to use the width of the pitch, Messi played as No 10, and on the right, Danilo prevented Real from constructing through Vinicius Jr.
Pochettino may make way for Zinedine Zidane and Mbappe may not stay in Paris this summer; his wantaway wish spurred by the desire to be No 1 at a club could be more than whatever PSG offer him. But those are stories for another day.
On the roof of the Parc des Princes, ‘Revons Plus Grand (dream bigger)’ gleams brightly. It is not in the league of Bayern’s ‘mia san mia’ or Barca’s ‘mes que un club’ but after a string of heartbreaks in the Champions League, PSG will be hoping that will change this summer.