In the absence of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo from the Champions League quarter-finals for the first time since 2005, Kylian Mbappe once again emphasised his capability to claim their crown as the game’s outstanding player.
Twice the World Cup winner found the target as a patchwork Paris Saint-Germain side counterpunched their way to a 3-2 quarter-final first-leg advantage away at Bayern Munich.
t was the game the 2020 final was billed to be: a breathless encounter between a Bayern side intent on throwing numbers into attack and a PSG outfit capable of springing forward at pace whenever they negotiated the press of their Bavarian hosts.
And it was the pace of Mbappe that proved the greatest weapon for Mauricio Pochettino’s side on a snowy evening at the Allianz Arena.
After just a couple of minutes, he punished an absent Bayern defence by taking up a position in space and firing powerfully through Manuel Neuer. It was the quickest goal conceded by Bayern in a Champions League knockout match since Wayne Rooney for Manchester United in 2010.
That laid the platform for Marquinhos to put the Parisians into a 2-0 lead after he latched onto Neymar’s inch-perfect, first-time cross, but when the captain went off injured, any semblance of defensive composure was gone as the lack of depth in the heart of the PSG defence was exposed.
Bayern clawed the game back to 2-2 through headers from Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting and Thomas Muller, but just as it seemed that Hansi Flick’s side were going for the killer blow, Mbappe galloped down the left, gave Neuer the eyes and sent a brilliant finish in at the goalkeeper’s near post.
In a match in which PSG had so few opportunities, such a cool head in front of goal was essential. Indeed, it was the only way they could possibly have claimed an advantage for the second leg at Parc des Prince in six days.
It is the second time in the knockout stage that Mbappe has proven decisive. Faced with an improving Barcelona team at Camp Nou in the last 16, the 22-year-old was similarly decisive, scoring a hat-trick on that occasion as PSG built an even more impressive 4-1 lead.
And yet all this comes off the back of criticism in France that Mbappe has not been at his best level, fuelling comments from the player that suggest he could depart in the summer for a first foreign adventure.
Indeed, Mbappe endured a miserable drought in the Champions League in 2020. Although PSG reached the final of the competition, he went 10 games without scoring, from the group stage of the 2019-20 competition through to the final game of the groups this term.
While it should be taken into account that he played the Final 8 in Lisbon short of both fitness and sharpness, there was understandable cause for concern as PSG initially struggled this season.
Faced with a succession of decisive games in Europe, though, Mbappe has now scored eight in four – the type of figures that fans have come to expect from Messi and Ronaldo over the years.
Indeed, no French player has ever scored more than eight in a single edition of the Champions League, while Mbappe has more knockout goals to his credit at 22 than the great Thierry Henry managed in his whole career.
Whether PSG can negotiate a perilous second leg against Bayern next Tuesday or not, Mbappe this season is establishing himself as football’s next great big-game player.