Picture this setting. It’s the Champions’ League semi-final and possibly the biggest game in the past decade for your club. You’re lining up against players that have commanded record transfer fees, former World Cup winners, true legends of the game – the notorious trio of Bonucci, Barzagli and Chiellini with the mercurial Gigi Buffon between the sticks.. The Champions’ League anthem is bellowing over the stadium and you could cut the tension with a knife. Oh and one more thing, you’re just 18 years old.
This was the situation faced by Kylian Mbappe last night. It’s been an unbelievable season for the young Frenchman. From being just another talent that Arsenal are “looking” to sign to being thrust into the limelight, compared to Thierry Henry and apparently earmarked as the next Galactico signing by Fiorentino Perez – it could have gone to his head. With a unique combination of pace and power and a hungry Monaco team filled with youngsters brimming with talent, Mbappe has terrorized defenders in Ligue 1 week in week out and his recent Champions’ league successes against Manchester City and Borussia Dortmund has seen his stock rise into the stratosphere. But he’s not fazed by the hype and just keeps on doing what he does best – scoring goals.
Last night might have been a bad night that could have ended Monaco’s European dream, but if Monaco are to take a positive from yesterday it has to be the performance of their wunderkind. On a night when a number of the young brigade went missing, Mbappe continued to shine. One moment of sublime brilliance with the score at 0-0 could have put his team in the lead, just have a look at the video and watch the magic. With the ball coming in from the flank, many strikers might have fluffed their lines or snatched at it, but Mbappe calmly sidefooted it right on target and only the veteran positioning sense of Buffon could keep the ball out. It could have turned the tie on it’s head.
But the French league has a reputation for bigging up youngsters before their potential can be estimated. For every Eden Hazard there is a Remy Cabella and you could go in for the “next” Benzema and end up with Bafetimbi Gomis. There is evidence to suggest that this time around it will be different though.
More than his obvious natural talent and work ethic, there’s one other quality that makes him one to watch for the future. The best players know the big occasion when they see it and make sure to sieze it with both hands. Quarter finals of the Champions’ league – Hattrick Ronaldo. Injury time in the Classico – step up Leo Messi to keep Barca in the hunt for the league. Infact there are players that earn a reputation of “bottling it” at the highest stage and find that incredibly hard to get over. Just ask Gonzalo Higuain.
No fears on that front for Mbappe though, 5 goals in 4 Champions League knockout games means he’s not afraid to take the big occasion by the scruff of it’s neck and stamp his authority on it.
The last time a youngster had the eyes of the world on him at such a young age, it was a young Brazillion superhero from Santos. Back in 2011-2012 people didn’t just take notice of Neymar because of the rainbow flicks and YouTube compilations. It was because at just 18, he had led Santos to the Copa Libertadores title scoring the vital goal to win in the semi final followed by a Man of the Match performance in the final. The last time Santos had won the title, it was in the heydey of Pele. The world had a new star and after two more years of success, he went on to bigger things at Barcelona where, as one cog of the 100+ goal MSN trio, he won the Treble in just his second season.
You can easily make an argument for him to be the third best player in the world right now and that’s despite playing in a world with Messi and Ronaldo. With both of them approaching the twilight of their careers Neymar has already started to take the mantle as the world’s best player. You can already see it this season with the Brazillian often being the talisman in the Barcelona lineup. But he never lost his big game mentality. Nothing illustrates this better than the astonishing comeback against PSG where he inspired his team to do the unthinkable.
This should be the example for Mbappe to follow and Monaco fans will be ecstatic if they can get two more years of him at the Principality. Endorsements from Thierry Henry and Pep Guardiola don’t come to everyone. They say, cometh the hour, cometh the man. Mbappe has shown he has the mentality to succeed. That he had the skill was never in doubt but this shows that he is the real deal. The sky is the limit for this 18 year old.