Date published: Tuesday 18th August 2020 10:36
It’s not a statement, but a question worth considering. Neymar and Kylian Mbappe are undoubtedly in the top ten footballers on the planet, and would be in most people’s top five. But is it now finally time to admit Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have been knocked off the perch they’ve laid claim to for over a decade?
They’re easy to dismiss most of the time because they play for Paris Saint-Germain. Sure, they both score roughly a goal a game, but who wouldn’t in Ligue 1? Well, no-one else does. But if Ronaldo played for them he’d get 60-a-season. There’s never a solution to that dicussion.
And of course people don’t like PSG, so by proxy, anyone who plays for them is going to be met with added scrutiny.
Angel Di Maria was the star of the show on Tuesday evening – scoring one and claiming two stunning assists. The first in particular – from a free-kick on the left corner of the area – was something you simply have to stop and admire; the RB Leipzig players may as well have done the same.
Marquinhos got the all important touch, but it was all about Di Maria’s delivery. He hits a whip – whether it’s a shot or a cross – as cleanly, accurately and wickedly as anyone. It was as though he was Roger Federer topspinning a forehand, but instead of the ball kissing the white chalk lines of Wimbledon, it was aimed perfectly onto the head of Marquinhos, who didn’t need to break stride to nod it past Peter Gulacsi.
But it’s impossible to watch PSG without your eye being drawn to Neymar and Mbappe, much like the defenders who are lured in to attempt – and inevitably fail – to challenge them. Neither of them had their best game: Neymar missed an early chance; Mbappe should have had a second half brace. But some of their combination play, awareness of space and pure footballing ability is frightening.
Neymar body swerving; fainting one way and going another, then another, and another. He thrives in tight spaces: drawing defenders in before either being fouled or emerging with the ball through what appears at the time to be some sort of FIFA glitch. And no-one else in world football would have considered – let alone pulled off – the beautiful backheel touch to set up Di Maria.
Mbappe was slightly off it, in truth. The passes were a bit too heavy at times and he snatched at the chances he had. But the speed, whether it’s to rush past opponents to latch onto a through ball, or even more impressively with the ball never out of his control as his dribbles through the outstretched legs of floundering defenders. It’s impossible to stop, unless you’re Alphonso Davies perhaps. Now that’s a mouthwatering match-up.
The poor finishing from both may add to the weight of the arguments of those still flying the Messi and Ronaldo flags of superiority, but the best footballer in the world didn’t always score 50 goals-a-season. The unbreachable top two have made it about that. But both Ronaldo and Messi’s influences on their teams are waning, as their failure to reach this far in the Champions League has shown. They’re still scoring the goals, but questions are now rightly being asked as to whether they’re now more of a help or a hinderance.
Ronaldo and Messi will either carry or be carried, depending on their opponent. Mbappe and Neymar work for their team; they were pressurising the Leipzig defenders throughout. Which means on a night like this, when the end product is sometimes lacking, the hope that they can produce a moment of magic isn’t at the expense of their teammates should that moment not arrive. But it’s usually around the corner.
Will Ford is on Twitter