After two perfect performances, it was almost the perfect set-up, for something grander.
Erling Haaland had just come off the pitch at Sevilla having scored two decisive goals to inspire an emphatic Borussia Dortmund victory, but immediately made a point – unprompted – about the previous night’s action.
“When I saw [Kylian] Mbappe score that hat-trick yesterday I got free motivation, so thanks to him.”
Haaland insisted he didn’t have any kind of bet or challenge with the French star, but had almost taken it upon himself.
“No, no, I saw Mbappe yesterday, and he scored some nice goals, and I got the free boost from him.”
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It’s easy to sense where this is going, just as it is difficult to stop them. It was a feeling visible in the desperation of Gerard Pique, and the fear on the faces of the Sevilla defenders.
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The wonder is whether this week will not just mark the final ascendancy of these two young stars, but the beginning of a sporting rivalry to match that of the two players they are surpassing.
The way in which Haaland charged himself with matching Mbappe was reminiscent of so many Cristiano Ronaldo performances after Lionel Messi perfection.
This may be a particular vision of the future, to go with the way these two represent the future of the game. It may be Mbappe and Haaland racing to outscore each other.
A stage has been set. A pace has now been set, especially given how pure power amplifies the gifts of both players.
The stats are already staggering, which is something else reminiscent of peak Ronaldo-Messi. They go beyond Haaland’s remarkable rate of 18 in 13 in this competition. Since the Norwegian made his debut in the Champions League, at the start of 2019-20, the nouveau duo have outscored the old guard by almost two to one. Haaland and Mbappe have 28 between them, Messi and Ronaldo 15.
It was a feeling only fostered by how muted, and diluted, the senior two were. Messi was forced further away from goal, because he is now naturally a long way from the kind of sonic blur that used to have people speaking of him in the way they talk of Mbappe now. He at least set up a penalty with a divine ball and then scored it. Ronaldo barely touched the ball in Juventus’ tepid defeat to Porto, his only meaningful contributions whining comments at the officials.
Mbappe starred against Barcelona on Tuesday
The likely prices, and interest, generated by Mbappe and Haaland only emphasise this – especially against the effect of the most recent contracts signed by Ronaldo and Messi.
It is as if we’ve reached a tipping point as to whether they’re now worth it. It is not just that they demand their teams play a specific way, almost regimented around them in a fixed way that is not best practice in the fluid modern game.
The major problem is that they both consume so much of their clubs’ budgets that they prevent the kind of overhauls required, which is pretty much the only way to really introduce the kind of youthful intensity that both Mbappe and Haaland personify.
It should never be forgotten, of course, that Ronaldo and Messi have earned such wages more than virtually any other players in history.
For all the discussion around Barca – and one notorious leak – Messi is one player at the club who is worth that kind of money. The problem is the other decisions that have been taken alongside that. Imagine, for example, Barca had saved the money they spent on Philippe Coutinho, Antoine Griezmann and Ousmane Dembele for Mbappe.
Similarly, it’s neither player’s fault their clubs have offered them such contracts.
Haaland excelled for Dortmund on Wednesday
There’s also the ample proof that these are two players, more than anyone else, capable of turning this round; capable of putting off the future and proving they remain the present; the masters.
Ronaldo could very easily demolish Porto’s lead with two well-placed headers at home. Messi has the motivation of what he did against Paris Saint-Germain in 2017.
They remain supremely talented, if not at the same supreme physical peak.
They could well render such talk foolish, and ironically come together to beat a new rivalry.
It’s just that, unlike a Mbappe or Haaland run, it’s not like this talk comes out of nowhere.
It’s not even Mbappe’s first milestone win over Messi. This was all prefaced by that last-16 game between France and Argentina at the 2018 World Cup.
Haaland has meanwhile had all of Europe after him for over a year, and all of Europe afraid of him for just as long.
This is what they do now. They might not just be the game’s next great players. It might be the game’s next great rivalry.
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