The French forward showed an unpredictable nature in his stoppage-time winner to make a case as the best player in the world
When it comes to comprehending moments of genuine sporting genius, psychologists often talk about “the curse of expertise”. That is when something is so natural to an athlete that they find it impossible to really put into words or explain. There has arguably been an element of it to most of Lionel Messi’s career, given how infamously uncommunicative he is.
There is evidently none of it with Kylian Mbappe.
Speaking with an enthusiasm that went with his performance, and his goal, the 23-year-old was more than able to explain his match-winning moment against Real Madrid. It was actually an enticingly rare insight into genius, which is precisely what this was.
It wasn’t just natural talent or instinct, though. It was natural talent and instinct combined with intelligent calculation, and someone all too aware of his abilities.
“I’m always concentrating,” Mbappe said. “I have the advantage of getting into the box very early, so I’m quickly master of my own destiny. I’m in control. They’re going backwards and the referee has already given a penalty tonight, so they don’t really know what to do.”
Dani Carvajal probably didn’t know where he was. This was another element that elevated the goal. It wasn’t just a moment in its own right, but a consequence of so many similar moments, an accumulation of excellent pieces of play.
Mbappe had targeted Carvajal all night, turning him this way and that before just shredding him. There were so many times when the right-back was left trying to turn and getting caught as Mbappe shaped to shoot and then just accelerated in the other direction.
This is what makes him so devastating, so deserving of his status as perhaps the best in the world. With some players blessed with such pace, it mostly about that: the pace. They just use their speed to destroy, but it can make them predictable.
With Mbappe, he’s so in control of his body and the ball, that he’s entirely unpredictable. The only thing a defender knows for certain is that he can burn you to the same degree in either direction.
Again, it is instinct married with insight.
So it was with that match-winning goal, which should go down as one of the moments of this Champions League season.
Mbappe shouldn’t have been able to get into the area he did.
Really, he shouldn’t have been able to score from there, when on the side of the 18-yard box, with three defenders and a goalkeeper in front of him. Yet he had suitable awareness of his own ability to surge through and finish, in what all seemed the same fluid movement. It was as smooth as it was devastating.
It was also all the more impressive for two other reasons.
First was the context of the game. PSG had been by far the better team but were in danger of squandering a clear opportunity, with Messi having missed a penalty.
On another night, this could have been a debate about the Argentine, and a discussion over whether he actually had a good performance. Messi was responsible for what had been the game’s most decisive moment, but had equally created a series of chances, particularly in the half-hour after that save.
He put both Neymar and Mbappe through in the final minutes alone. He was still so good, offering moments only Messi can offer, despite not being anywhere near as good as he can be. It’s possible there is now someone better.
Mbappe gave a greater moment. He saved Messi, and saved the game. He may well have changed the course of the season, and his future.
Because, second, there was also the context of Mbappe’s career.
Everyone sees it as a fait accompli that he will join Madrid. That could have made this an awkward night, of the type that has seen players under-perform in similar situations. You can look at one of the games that made the legacy of the Spanish club, and one of the reasons that Mbappe sees them as so attractive.
Ahead of the very first European Cup final in 1956, Raymond Kopa lined out for Stade Reims, but knew he was going to Madrid once it was finished. He underperformed, Madrid won.
This game admittedly didn’t have quite the same stakes, but didn’t have the same outcome either. Mbappe more than performed. He won the game for PSG.
“I knew I was expected tonight, maybe a bit more than usual, but I think I’ve become the kind of player who’s always expected.”
It is a preciously rare type of awareness.