World Cup 2018

Mbappé can follow in legend's footsteps with final heroics

 • by Matt Gault
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It’s been said before but it bears repeating that when Didier Deschamps hoisted the World Cup trophy aloft in 1998, Kylian Mbappé had not yet entered the world.

It really brings into sharp focus the youth of Mbappé, France’s jet-heeled wonderkid who has wowed audiences in Russia during Les Bleus’ march to the final.

His development, maturity and the sheer ruthlessness with which he tears through defences make it easy to forget he is still only 19. For context, when France took on Brazil in the ’98 World Cup final, their youngest starting player was Lilian Thuram. He was 26.

Then again, Mbappé is a rare talent, a player of incalculable promise primed to reach the pinnacle of the sport with club and country.

If he scores in the final against Croatia, he will become just the second player to have done so. The other? Pelé.

And like Pelé’s star-making turn during Brazil’s triumph in 1958, Mbappé scoring in the final would be a fitting denouement to a stellar campaign.

Pelé scored six goals in 1958. With three to his name, it’s unlikely the Parisian will match that haul. But there are similarities in the way in which the French starlet has announced himself this summer, capturing the global imagination and catapulting himself to the forefront of the footballing consciousness.

Mbappé’s meteoric rise

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Regular consumers of football will have been acutely aware of Mbappé’s soaring trajectory within the game long before a ball was kicked in Russia.

For his has been a rise that, while meteoric, has been impossible to miss. Mbappé made his Monaco debut in December 2015, a week shy of his 17th birthday.

In his first full season in Monaco’s senior set-up, he scored 26 goals in 44 games as Leonardo Jardim’s side clinched the Ligue 1 title. Mbappé established himself on the continent, too, starring in Les Rouges et Blancs’ run to the Champions League semi-final.

While some would have warned Mbappé about making a major move during his formative years, he seemed destined for more illustrious surroundings and moved to Paris Saint-Germain just three weeks after Les Parisiens’ world-record capture of Neymar from Barcelona.

However, as Neymar quarrelled with teammates and skipped games for mysterious reasons, Mbappé continued his impressive development, scoring 21 goals in 44 games as PSG won a domestic treble.

Announcing himself on the global stage

Yet, while his mark on the club scene has been indelible, Mbappé was not the standout star during France’s World Cup qualifying campaign. The teenager scored once – the fourth in a 4-0 win over the Netherlands – while Olivier Giroud and Antoine Griezmann netted four apiece.

In 2016, as France failed to clinch the European Championships on home soil, falling to Portugal in the final, Mbappé offered a thrilling glimpse of what was to come in the Under-19 event, scoring five goals to lift Les Bleuets to the title in Germany.

It’s absurd to think that, just two years later, Mbappé has a reasonable shot at walking away on Sunday night with the World Cup trophy, the Golden Ball for best player and the Best Young Player award (following in the footsteps of his teammate, Paul Pogba, who won it in Brazil four years ago).

But nobody would begrudge Mbappé his accolades. He has terrified defences throughout this tournament. In 444 minutes, he has attempted 52 dribbles, succeeding with 28. Only Eden Hazard (33) has completed more.

The most breathtaking demonstration of his abilities came against Argentina, Mbappé almost single-handedly eviscerating a dishevelled South American outfit during a pulsating 4-3 win.

The 19-year-old clocked frightening speeds as he won an early penalty before scoring twice in the second-half to finish off La Albiceleste. 

Mbappe’s combination of agility, speed and clinical finishing was devastating, and one to which Argentina simply had no reply beyond trying to wrestle him to the ground.

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Admittedly, Mbappé has not replicated his defence-shredding heroics from the round of 16 in much tighter games against Uruguay and Belgium. France required a set-piece and a goalkeeping clanger to beat the former and another set-piece to edge out the latter.

Croatia now stand between France and their second World Cup. Zlatko Dalić’s side have proven themselves to be spirited, gritty competitors. They have reached the final on merit.

They may not possess an attacking sensation of Mbappé’s quality but they shut down Argentina much more effectively than France managed and emerged from three exhausting knockout games, all of which went to extra-time, all of which ended in a Croatian triumph.

Mbappé is 90 minutes away from joining the legends of the game. He is, you feel, the Frenchman upon which the hopes of a nation lie most heavily. But he has proved he can deliver. Now, he must take the final by the scruff like he did against Argentina and shape the outcome in the blink of an eye, like only he can.

A precocious 17-year-old Pelé scored twice in that 1958 final to crush Sweden. Can Mbappé build on his fleet-footed brilliance and become a French hero?

It remains to be seen, but pray for Croatian defender Ivan Strinić.

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