The 91st Minute is a column by Sam Reno about professional soccer.
Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. Two names synonymous with the sport they have dominated for the better part of two decades. Nominated for the Ballon d’Or, awarded annually to the world’s best footballer, an all-time record of twelve times each, one of the two has won the award in eleven of the last twelve seasons. The top two goal scorers in the history of both the Champions League and La Liga will undoubtedly be remembered as the two best to ever play the game.
As the Champions League knockout rounds began on Feb. 16, however, their greatness was overshadowed. Messi’s Barcelona suffered a 4-1 beatdown at the hands of PSG on Feb. 16 while Ronaldo and Juventus fell 2-1 away against Porto the following day. Meanwhile, young stars Kylian Mbappe and Erling Halaand wowed in victories for their sides.
Messi and Ronaldo have certainly delivered poor performances in Champions League defeats before, but the pair had never been so obviously outshined by other young stars as they were last week.
Kylian Mbappe and Erling Haaland, both strikers under the age of 23 for PSG and Dortmund, respectively, each put on a show in Champions League play. Mbappe scored a hat trick in that same 4-1 match against Barcelona while Haaland scored two goals for Dortmund in their 3-2 win at Sevilla.
Mbappe’s incredible three-goal performance on Feb. 16 was impossible to ignore, and the media coverage followed. Equal praise was heaped on Haaland after his play the next day. These were two Champions League match days, knockout stages at that, on which Messi and Ronaldo both suited up, yet, for what seems like the first time, they were individually upstaged by other stars.
Mbappe, at only 22 years old, has scored the most Champions League goals of any player before turning ages 20, 21, 22 and trails Messi by a single goal before turning 23. At this young age, he has already led PSG to its first Champions League Final appearance and won a FIFA World Cup for France.
Haaland, just 20 years old, has scored the second most Champions League goals of any player before turning ages 20, 21, and 22. With three years to add to his total, he has already scored the fourth most UCL goals before turning 23. While he has not enjoyed the same successes at the club level that Mbappe has, it appears that may change very soon for Haaland.
This summer, Haaland will find himself in the middle of a massive bidding war for his services. Clubs such as Manchester City, Manchester United, Chelsea, Real Madrid and Juventus have already shown interest in the Norwegian striker. Whichever club he chooses to play for next year will most certainly enjoy long-term success.
Mbappe and Haaland are game-changing, generational talents that have already proved their worth time and time again, even at such a young age, and both are poised for incredible individual and club success for years to come. The future of the game has been placed in their hands, and if the last few years are any indication, we will not be disappointed.
The era of Messi and Ronaldo is not entirely finished, however, for there are, of course, still second legs against PSG and Porto for them to shine in unbelievable comebacks. While that seems unlikely, especially for Messi and Barcelona, the pair still have another chapter or two to write in their illustrious careers.
After nearly moving to Manchester City last summer, Messi looks certain to change clubs for the first time this summer. Messi is doing it all for a Barcelona squad that has only managed to fight its way to fourth in La Liga this season. The move would provide Messi the much-needed support that Barcelona has failed to provide him in recent years. It will likely be one last run in one of Europe’s top leagues for the best to ever touch grass.
Ronaldo still has another season left under his current contract at Juventus, and has led them to the Serie A league title each season since his arrival. He is surrounded by incredible talent at the club, and they need just a two goal victory in their second leg against Porto to advance to the quarterfinals. Ronaldo is certainly in a great position to close out the prime of his career with Juventus, but a move could be waiting over the horizon in 2022.
The door has certainly not closed for Messi and Ronaldo, but, this past week, we peered through a window for the first time, revealing the brilliance Mbappe and Haaland will bring in the years to come. The game will certainly never be the same without them, but Mbappe and Haaland are showing us why, when the time ultimately does come, the future of the game is in great hands.
“The 91st Minute” runs every Wednesday.