The symbolism of Kylian Mbappe’s stunning hat trick at the Camp Nou last month was obvious. On the home turf of the greatest player of his generation, Lionel Messi, at a time when questions over his future at Barcelona linger, the French forward proved why he is at the vanguard of the next generation in a 4-1 win for Paris Saint-Germain. Only the following night, Erling Haaland also demonstrated why he must be viewed in a similar way to Mbappe, with the Norwegian bagging a brace in a 3-2 first leg win for Borussia Dortmund over Sevilla. All of a sudden, the new era of European football was upon us and the rivalry between Haaland and Mbappe could be its defining duel, taking over from the Messi vs. Ronaldo debate which has characterised recent years. Comparisons to Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are inescapable.
Just as these two players pushed each other to new heights, it appears Haaland and Mbappe do the same to each other. The former admitted as much after his sparkling display at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan, commenting: “when I saw Mbappe score the hat-trick yesterday I got free motivation, so thanks to him.”
In the comparison to Messi and Ronaldo, Haaland, who also scored twice in the second leg against Sevilla, is certainly closer to the latter. The 20-year-old boasts the same sort of single-mindedness and focus that made the Portuguese forward a five-times Ballon d’Or winner. Haaland has fine-tuned his game to be as devastating as possible in the final third. Just like Ronaldo, he is a physical and mental behemoth.
Mbappe is no less effective in front of goal, but the Frenchman is more refined in his technique than Haaland. Much like Messi, there is an elegance to the way he plays the game. It’s in the manner he shapes his body to shoot. Mbappe is the purist’s pick even if his pace, something Messi never truly possessed, is his greatest attribute.
That blistering pace makes a comparison to Messi a little awkward. In truth, Mbappe is perhaps closer to a player like Thierry Henry than the Barcelona number 10, but as the game’s next ‘most talented player in the world’ in waiting it’s Messi’s crown that the PSG forward looks destined to inherit.
The biggest difference between Haaland and Mbappe can be found in the platform both players have. While there is some speculation over the latter’s future, with Real Madrid widely believed to be keen, he has the team around him to win the sport’s biggest prizes. PSG made the Champions League final for the first time last season and hope to go one step further this season.
Haaland, however, doesn’t have that team around him at Borussia Dortmund. There’s a good chance the Black and Yellows won’t even be in next season’s Champions League such is their lowly position in the Bundesliga right now. Mbappe doesn’t need to go anywhere to compete at the top level of the European game, but the same can’t presently be said of Haaland.
Whether or not Haaland forces his way out of Dortmund this summer, to a club like Manchester City or Manchester United, will reveal a lot about his ambition to make it to the very top of the sport as quickly as possible. This is another area where the Norwegian could emulate Ronaldo, who knew he had to move to Real Madrid to take his game to another level.
Of course, the Messi and Ronaldo show isn’t yet over, with both players still producing incredible numbers this season, but the curtain is certainly starting to come down. The next headline act, however, is ready to take the stage. Haaland and Mbappe can define an era of European football in much the same way.