Come 10 p.m. on Tuesday nobody at Old Trafford was talking about Neymar. All the talk was about Kylian Mbappe.
When Gianluigi Buffon made his Champions League debut for Parma in 1997, Mbappe was not yet an embryo. When Ole Gunnar Solskjaer — then 26 — scored the last-gasp goal that won Manchester United the 1999 competition, Mbappe was just five months old.
Last night, their paths crossed at Old Trafford to devastating effect.
And while a eulogy of the Frenchman’s blistering pace and frightening speed of thought is hardly a radical stance, his performance in Paris Saint-Germain’s 2-0 win felt like a significant moment for a man whose stock could scarcely be higher following last summer’s World Cup.
It is not that his talismanic virtuoso was unexpected, but that it went against the talk of the game’s pre-match buildup — that PSG, beaten at Lyon nine days previous, might struggle in the absence of two thirds of their big-name attacking trio. As well as Neymar, PSG was also missing Edinson Cavani.
Prior to last night, Mbappe had contributed 71 goals in 71 games for the Paris club, with 43 goals and 28 assists — 47.9 percent of which have directly involved either Neymar or Cavani.
“We need to stop with the scare stories,” Mbappe told RMC Sport after the victory. “People need to stop being afraid. Of course, Neymar is hugely important and Cavani is fundamental to us, but football is played on the pitch and we showed that today.”
Of course, in Angel di Maria and Julian Draxler, PSG’s front three remained well-stocked. In fact, Mbappe was rarely at his clinical best. Yet, his sheer fleet of foot — and mind — came to the fore as he raced into a penalty area to latch onto Di Maria’s cross for his side’s second goal.
As the Daily Telegraph’s Sam Wallace wrote: “This was Champions League football played by grown-ups, and when Mbappe turned on the jets it felt like anything was possible.”
Even Solskjaer could not help but admire the goal. He acknowledged: “The second goal was quality — the ground he makes up to get into the box is brilliant.”
It feels almost paradoxical to suggest that Mbappe’s display defied expectation — this, after all, is a man whose talent justified a $166 million price tag as an 18-year-old, whose goal sealed World Cup glory and whose 2018 saw him finish fourth in the Ballon d’Or vote.
His efforts were only handed a seven out of 10 by French newspaper L’Equipe, with Di Maria topping the marks with an eight. Yet, bigger than his overall display was the symbolism of Mbappe leading from the front in the absence of his Brazilian teammate, his reputational superior.
It was Neymar who was brought in by Qatar Sports Investments’ millions in order to facilitate nights like these, to act as a figurehead for an era of continental domination by the Paris club. Thus far, it is a project from which the fruits have failed to fully materialize.
Even pre-Neymar, the 6-1 rout at the hands of Barcelona in 2017 — the very definition of defeat stemming from the jaws of triumph — proved a humiliating lesson to a club desperate for European success.
Last year, with Neymar in tow, they fell in the round of 16 — comfortably disposed of by Real Madrid, a club whose Champions League pedigree, one feels, is all to which PSG’s ambition aspires.
Chuck in the presence of a rejuvenated Paul Pogba — another of France’s global stars, the pressure on Mbappe to perform last night was immense. That he lived up to both the hype and the reliance is, perhaps, the greatest testament possible.