This year, for the first time since 2005/06, neither Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo were involved in the last four of the UEFA Champions League. In their absence, Kylian Mbappé helped PSG reach their first-ever final.
Although the Frenchman ended up on the losing side, his first involvement in European football’s showpiece event at the tender age of 21 years, 246 days, reminds us that despite him being already five years into his professional career, he still has a lot of time ahead of him to challenge for major European honours.
Ahead of PSG’s opening league fixture against Lens tomorrow night, we compare Mbappé’s goalscoring and assist numbers to those achieved by Ronaldo and Messi at the same age, as well as highlight the emerging players who could rival the Frenchman as the duo’s heir apparent during the next decade.
The European Legacy of Ronaldo and Messi
Since Ronaldo joined Manchester United in 2003, eight out of 17 Champions League finals have featured either Ronaldo or Messi. However, the two have only faced each other once, in the 2009 final, when Messi’s Barca beat Ronaldo’s United 2-0 in Rome, with the Argentinean getting on the scoresheet.
That was also Messi’s first final, at an age of 21 years and 337 days, making him slightly older than Mbappé was when he featured in Lisbon last month. However Messi would have featured in the 2006 final against Arsenal too, at the age of 18 years, 327 days, if it weren’t for injury. By coincidence, that is exactly the same age Patrick Kluivert was when he scored against AC Milan back in 1995. The Dutchman remains the youngest player to score in a Champions League final.
Ronaldo’s first final appearance came in Moscow, in 2008, where he got on the scoresheet in normal time before being one of three players to miss from the spot in the match-deciding penalty shoot-out, which went in favour of United to give Ronaldo his first of five Champions League titles.
Today, Messi is just over 33 whilst Ronaldo will turn 36 next February. However, despite their advancing years, the pair are still operating at an incredible level. Since 2003, both players have exceeded 30 goals in eight league campaigns, with both players netting more than 40 times in three campaigns each. Messi even reached the 50 goal mark in 2011/12, with Ronaldo coming close to matching that figure in 2014/15, when he scored 48.
Some critics felt Messi underperformed in 2019-20 by ‘only’ scoring 25 goals, however, it is worth remembering that he also contributed 21 assists – more than double that of any other LaLiga player – meaning that he had a hand in over 50% of all of Barca’s league goals. Some people are clearly very hard to please.
Enter The Young Pretender
Just like Ronaldo and Messi, Mbappé was already making waves before he had even kicked a ball at first-team level, having been linked with several of the world’s leading clubs during his time at the renowned Clairefontaine youth academy.
After helping France to glory at the European U19 Championships in 2016, Mbappé was then instrumental in helping Monaco secure the Ligue 1 title in his first full top-flight season at the age of 18, scoring 15 times in 29 appearances. This remains the only occasion in the last eight years when the league title didn’t go to PSG and unsurprisingly, the Parisians we quick to recruit Mbappé into their ranks just a few months after Monaco’s triumph. As of September 2020, he has already won four league titles, four domestic cups and a World Cup, an impressive haul for a player who won’t turn 22 until December.
Despite his team coming up short against Bayern in Lisbon, his individual performances in the Champions League to date compare favourably with those of Ronaldo and Messi at the same age.
Whilst Mbappé’s Champions League goals and assists eclipse those of the legendary duo, when we make the same comparison based on their big-five league appearances, the difference in output is even more pronounced.
When looking at these numbers we have to take into account that Ronaldo was operating wide on the right early in his United career, and many will argue that the quality of the competition in Ligue 1 isn’t on the same level as that of the Premier League, La Liga or Serie A. However it is worth remembering that another top-flight French side, Lyon, also reached this year’s Champions League semis, whilst not a single Spanish, Italian or English club went beyond the quarters.
At some point in his career, Mbappé may want to test himself in one of the other big five European leagues and if he does, it will be interesting to see if he can maintain the same goal and assist output he has achieved in his Ligue 1 career to date – and if he does then comparisons with the two men who dominated football in Europe during the 2010s will be inevitable.
Who Will Rival Mbappé in the 2020s?
Despite the intense rivalry between Messi and Ronaldo, many would argue that their respective performances have spurred each other onto even greater heights. So as they approach the latter stages of their careers, are there any other players who could challenge Mbappé as their heir apparent?
The table below provides a comparison between the Frenchman and many of the leading prospects around Europe – could any of these players match Mbappé’s exploits as the decade progresses?
Whilst many of these players have had less first team experience in their careers to date, the goal tally of Mbappé exceeds that of all his contemporaries. However, the assist count of Kai Havertz and Jadon Sancho compare more favourably, with the Englishman enjoying a better return on goals vs. minutes played. Sancho’s Dortmund teammate, Erling Haaland has been in prolific form since moving to the Bundesliga in January too – and if he can maintain the same scoring output into 2020/21 then he could emerge as a rival to Mbappé in the scoring charts.
Whilst it is still very premature to suggest that the era of Messi and Ronaldo is coming to an end, it is clear that Mbappé is primed to take over their mantle once they call time on their illustrious careers. However if the likes of Havertz, Sancho and Haaland can continue their development and improve upon their already impressive outputs in the seasons to come, who knows, maybe we will we be talking about a big four, as opposed to a big two, come 2030.