Kylian Mbappe is 25 – he should be closer to Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo

Kylian Mbappe of Paris Saint-Germain looks dejected after Borussia Dortmund defeat Paris Saint-Germain during the UEFA Champions League semi-final second leg match between Paris Saint-Germain and Borussia Dortmund at Parc des Princes on May 07, 2024 in Paris, France

The swiftness of the reaction. The suddenness of the movement. The speed at which he changed direction, pivoting on his heel and darting away from trouble. This was prime Kylian Mbappe, a man with complete awareness of his surroundings and with ultimate control of his body.

Sadly for him and Paris St-Germain, though, the match had long since ended. The fans had packed up their tifos and gone home. Mbappe was not surging away from Borussia Dortmund defenders but from a huddle of journalists, one of whom had just asked him whether he would be supporting Real Madrid against Bayern Munich.

First the eye-roll, a look of pure disdain, and then the departure from the scene. Mbappe had endured a difficult evening and he was, evidently, in no mood to be grilled about his imminent departure from PSG. This was a night for reflection and introspection, not for discussing his all-but-confirmed move to Spain.

“I am disappointed but that’s how it is,” Mbappe said. “When I score, I take the light and I come in front of you [the media]. When I don’t, I also take on the dark side. Not a problem.”

The dark side. It was an interesting way of putting it and it showed that Mbappe was already bracing himself for the inevitable reaction in France. There was to be no hiding from the reality of the situation: Tuesday’s Champions League semi-final loss to Dortmund was a significant failure by the club and by Mbappe, who will leave Paris this summer without the trophy that PSG have craved above all others.

Mbappe also departs with questions and doubts over his own brilliance. That might sound ludicrous, given that he is PSG’s all-time leading goalscorer, but it is a reflection of the standards by which he is now judged. Best player in the world? Maybe, but not on the evidence of his club career.

“Mbappe and PSG: seven years of disillusionment in the Champions League,” was the headline in Le Parisien on Wednesday morning. L’Equipe, meanwhile, described him as being “lost in the night” and said he had experienced the death of two dreams at once: winning the Champions League and the Ballon d’Or. In their famed player ratings, he received a two.

It says much about the nature of modern football that Mbappe can win the World Cup as a teenager, and then score a hat-trick in the final four years later, but still not be regarded as the undisputed leader of his generation. It is the Champions League now, more than any other competition, which separates the greatest from the greats.

Mbappe is now 25. By this age, Cristiano Ronaldo had won one Champions League title and Lionel Messi had won two. Mbappe is not expected to ever reach the heights of those two players but he is expected to get closer to them than he currently is, and he certainly is expected to succeed in Europe’s premier competition. Until he does, an asterisk will remain on his career.

It has not helped his standing that Erling Haaland, widely regarded as the main rival to Mbappe’s claim to being the world’s best, won the Champions League with Manchester City last season. Many of Haaland’s defining moments have been in this competition. That same cannot be said for Mbappe. Not yet, anyway. At Real Madrid, the masters of Europe, opportunity beckons.

Paris Saint-Germain's French forward #07 Kylian Mbappe leaves the pitch at the end of the UEFA Champions League semi-final second leg football match between Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) and Borussia Dortmund, at the Parc des Princes stadium in Paris
A desolate Mbappe leaves the pitch at the Parc des Princes after another Champions League disappointment - Getty Images/Franck Fife

So much of Mbappe’s time in Paris, the city of his birth, has been seen through the prism of Madrid. All of those will-he-won’t-he sagas had a detrimental effect on his relationship with the PSG fans, and this long goodbye — it has been known since February that he is leaving — has done little for his game. In the French league, he has started only one of PSG’s last four matches.

Against Dortmund, in both legs, Mbappe appeared burdened. Weighed down by the pressure of this being his last chance with PSG, and of being the standout star of the team. In Spain, by contrast, there will be plenty of opportunities to go all the way, and other stars to share the load.

Perhaps a new environment, after seven years with PSG, will prove to be liberating. Perhaps Mbappe will be able to stretch his legs and spread his wings once more. He still has time on his side, of course, and seemingly limitless talent.

But there will be pressure, too, from the manic world of Madrid and also from himself. Mbappe wants to assert himself as the world’s best and, in order to truly do so, he needs to thrive on the biggest stage in club football. He failed in that regard with PSG, and that failure can now only be erased by Champions League success in Madrid.

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