Lionel Messi returns to Spain on Wednesday when Paris Saint-Germain face Real Madrid at the Bernabeu, the scene of some of the most iconic performances of his incredible career before he swapped Barcelona for Paris.
But, at 34, a player who dominated the sport for well over a decade together with Cristiano Ronaldo returns to the Spanish capital having only scored seven times in 24 games for PSG this season.
It was Kylian Mbappe, Messi’s PSG team-mate, whose stunning goal gave the French giants their first-leg advantage back at the Parc des Princes and the 23-year-old is not the only player now seeking to usurp Messi and Ronaldo at the summit of the world’s game.
With Mohamed Salah, Erling Haaland, Robert Lewandowski and Neymar also vying for the title of world’s best, are we entering a new era in the battle for football’s biggest individual prizes?
Sky Sports pundit Jamie Carragher explains why Mohamed Salah and Kylian Mbappe are the two strongest contenders to the crown of world’s best player, following Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo’s dominance.
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“I think we are already in that era now,” says Sky Sports pundit Jamie Carragher. “Messi picked up the last Ballon d’Or but I do think that will be the last time we see Messi or Ronaldo pick that trophy up.
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“I think the new generation is ready to take that mantle on.”
Sky Sports pundit Gary Neville adds: “For the first time in years, if you asked people which player in the world they would sign if they could only pick one, no one would say Messi or Ronaldo, they would likely say Mbappe, Haaland, Salah, Lewandowski.
“You would be naming players other than Ronaldo and Messi, and that is the clearest sign that while these two are still operating at the highest level, they are fading from the levels they were at before.
“They are no longer the best players in the world.”
Carra: It hasn’t clicked for Messi at PSG
Image: Lionel Messi joined PSG from Barcelona in the summer
Anyone who saw either of Lionel Messi’s assists in Paris Saint-Germain’s recent 3-1 win over St Etienne at the Parc des Princes will be aware the old magic is still there.
For the first, he drifted inside from the right flank and opened St Etienne up with a stunning reverse pass for Mbappe.
For the second, he set up the same player after dancing through a crowd of green-shirted defenders on the edge of the box.
Those moments of inspiration took him to 10 assists in Ligue 1 this season, the joint-most in the division, but in terms of goals, his output has dropped dramatically for the first time in his career.
There have been five in six games in the Champions League, but only two in 17 in Ligue 1. For a player who averaged more than 30 per season in league games alone at Barcelona, it is unfamiliar territory.
“It was always going to be a lot more difficult,” says Carragher. “A new country, a new team.
“It must have been a wrench leaving Barcelona. We saw the scenes when he left the club and I think we were all sad to see it.
“It just felt fitting that he would play his whole career for one club so I’m sad that didn’t happen in the end.
“He had a brilliant season in his last season at Barcelona, with the numbers you would always expect him to get, but it hasn’t quite clicked for him at Paris Saint-Germain, maybe for a number of reasons.
“There’s that many star players there desperate to be the main man and possibly one who is about to take that mantle in Mbappe.”
Carra: A toss-up between Salah and Mbappe
Image: Mohamed Salah is the Premier League's top scorer with 19 goals this season
Mbappe is enjoying a spectacular season at PSG, matching Messi’s total of 10 assists in Ligue 1 while also scoring 14 goals himself, including two in that recent win over St Etienne.
It is in the Champions League, though, that he has shone most brightly, contributing four goals and four assists in the group stage before his sensational, solo winner in the last-16 first-leg clash with Real Madrid, the club desperate to sign him this summer.
Carragher described Salah as the best player in the world in October following his dazzling performance in Liverpool’s 2-2 draw with Manchester City at Anfield but he sees Mbappe as the Egyptian’s main competition for the crown.
“I think the toss-up for me would be between Mohamed Salah and Kylian Mbappe,” he says. “They would be the two who would split people now in the way Messi and Ronaldo have split people for so many years.
“But I think the season Salah is having, and the numbers he’s got compared to anyone else in the Premier League, which is the best league in the world right now, just shows how far ahead of everybody else in the Premier League he is.
“With Mbappe, we see that the French league is a level down, but what he’s done in the Champions League, his performance against Real Madrid in the first leg, just tells you how special this guy is.
“A World Cup-winner already, and it will be interesting to see where he is playing his football next season.”
One advantage Mbappe has over Salah is his age. The Frenchman is six years younger at 23 but dominating the game in the same way as Messi and Ronaldo could be a tall order, according to Carragher.
“I think it’s going to be very difficult for anybody to dominate in the way Messi and Ronaldo have done for so long. That’s not because these players don’t have the ability, it’s just that there may be someone else who comes along in four or five years and takes their mantle.
“There are always great players coming, and for Ronaldo and Messi to hold off that competition for so long just shows how far ahead of everybody else they were.”
Nev: Sensational Mbappe has the edge
Image: Kylian Mbaape has been in inspired form for PSG this season
While Carragher is torn between Salah and Mbappe, Neville believes the Frenchman has the edge.
“At times earlier in the season, Salah was at a level that was the best in the world, and he still could be,” he says. “But if you said to me I could sign one player for Manchester United tomorrow, I would still probably go for Mbappe or Haaland over Salah.
“It’s not a Liverpool thing, I think Salah is absolutely amazing, but I just think Mbappe has got the ability to be out-of-this-world special.
“There is no doubt Salah is world-class, but Mbappe has got something different, that edge, something that is that good, it could make him one of the true greats.
He adds: “In terms of excitement, thrill, speed, Mbappe is absolutely sensational.
“He reminds me of Henry, but he’s also got a bit of Ronaldo in him.
“He needs to win the Champions League with PSG this season, that would be the ultimate thing for him. The Champions League, and another World Cup, would be the crowning glory for Mbappe to succeed Ronaldo and Messi.”
Even then, though, emulating Messi and Ronaldo’s longevity is likely to prove impossible, according to Neville.
“That is the great challenge for Mbappe,” he says.
“What we mustn’t underestimate with Ronaldo and Messi is their resilience, their consistency, the standards season in, season out, the number of games they have played, their toughness, mentally and physically, to withstand all the kickings they will have taken and the criticism they will have had, the pressure and scrutiny that is on them.
“To get to those levels, Mbappe is going to have to win three or four Champions Leagues, he’s got to score 30 to 40 goals a season for a decade, and he’s probably got to go and do it in a country other than France.
“I don’t think Haaland and Mbappe can get anywhere near the levels of Ronaldo and Messi.
“They are two young players who are massively talented. They can become the best in the world and achieve great things.
“But we shouldn’t think every new, young superstar will automatically take over from Ronaldo and Messi, who are the kind of players you’d be lucky to see once every 80 years.
“What Ronaldo and Messi have achieved is out of this world, the numbers have been unrelenting, obscene.”
Carra: Ronaldo judged against his former self
Image: Cristiano Ronaldo has scored 15 goals in 30 games for Man Utd this season
Ronaldo has faced huge scrutiny since his return to Manchester United, his performances put under the microscope and his suitability to the side, at 37, discussed ad nauseum despite his continued scoring feats.
“I think he’s done well,” says Carragher. “To play at that level for Manchester United at 37 is unbelievable, but we’re judging him against the player he was before that.
“Unfortunately, that’s the way it is for these guys who have dominated for so long.
“I wasn’t convinced it was a great signing for Manchester United, or that it was going to take them any closer to the title or any big trophies, and I would be surprised if he’s there next season, I really would.
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“But for him as an individual, or anyone, to still be playing for one of the world’s biggest clubs at 37 is an achievement in itself.”
Neville, meanwhile, believes Ronaldo, together with Messi, has redefined expectations around goal scoring.
“They have not been traditional centre-forwards, which makes the numbers they have hit even more incredible,” he says.
“Purely on goals, Ronaldo and Messi have redefined football.
“Ordinarily the biggest goalscorers in a team have been centre-forwards. Wide players were there to assist and cross. But they have redefined how we see the wide striker in football.
“The wide striker can now be a 30, 40 goals a season machine. Salah and [Sadio] Mane are now doing that at Liverpool, [Raheem] Sterling at Manchester City – they are scoring a load of goals from the wide striker position, and that is all because Ronaldo and Messi have set that expectation at that level.
“They have done it for 15 seasons consistently, it is off the scale, ridiculous.”
Nev: Haaland a modern-day Cantona
Image: Erling Haaland has been outstanding for Borussia Dortmund
Haaland is still only 21 but his formidable goalscoring record already places him among the elite.
The Norwegian has smashed 56 goals in 57 Bundesliga games since his arrival at Borussia Dortmund from Red Bull Salzburg in January 2020 and this season has been his most prolific yet, with a total of 16 goals and five assists in 14 league games meaning he is averaging 1.65 goal involvements per 90 minutes.
For Neville, though, Haaland’s character is as significant as his ability when it comes to his hopes of achieving greatness.
“I like Haaland’s personality,” he says. “I like the fact he doesn’t care what anyone thinks.
“He’s got a bit of Eric Cantona in him. He’s the modern-day version if you like.
“People call it arrogant, I get that, but he has the ability to back it up. You can’t teach that.
“Football needs people like him, it needs personality. We want players with something about them. For every angel, we want a Haaland, a young personality who doesn’t quite do things perfectly.
“We want professional, well-behaved people, but we also want personality and character and people who are willing to go against the norm, that is what Haaland does.”
For Carragher, though, his numbers are most important.
“I think there is always competition with him and Mbappe, Lewandowski and Salah in terms of numbers of goals and that’s what we seem to judge the best players in the world now, goals scored and assists made. It’s all about numbers.
“When I was a lot younger, it wasn’t so much about numbers, it was more about the play. It was never normally a goalscorer who was the best player in the world, it was normally a playmaker.
“I think of Michel Platini when I was a youngster. Lothar Matthaus as a midfielder at 1990. Zinedine Zidane, who is not someone you recognise for lots of goals, more great goals. Rivaldo was another one.
“It wasn’t always the guy who scored the most goals but I think Messi and Ronaldo have changed that.”
Carra: Timing unfortunate for Lewandowski
Image: Robert Lewandowski remains one of the most prolific goalscorers in the world
Lewandowski missed out to Messi in the Ballon d’Or voting last year. He missed out by virtue of the award being cancelled in the pandemic-hit year before that.
But the Bayern Munich striker won FIFA’s version of the prize on both occasions and few could argue he didn’t deserve them. Across the last three seasons, he has scored 103 goals in Bundesliga games alone. Throw in Champions League games and it’s 132.
The numbers are extraordinary. Lewandowski will be 34 when next season rolls around and yet he keeps getting better. In terms of goals and goal involvements per 90 minutes, the four most prolific seasons of his career have all come in the last five years.
Does he deserve more acclaim?
Carragher says: “He does, and it’s just unfortunate for him that he’s at the peak of his powers when Messi and Ronaldo have been around in these last few years.
“He’s done brilliantly to keep it going with the age that he’s at as well.
“He’s predominantly a goalscorer but the timing for him is just a little bit out of sync. That’s been a problem for a lot of players, not just him.”
Neville, though, feels he’s not at the level required to be considered the world’s best.
He says: “Lewandowski is a great centre-forward, he’s been a great player for Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich, but I don’t think we should be putting him anywhere near Messi and Ronaldo.
“He wouldn’t put himself in that bracket – he’s got great humility. He’s been a great player, he continues to perform at a high level, and he probably would have won the Ballon d’Or in 2020 had it not been postponed for Covid.
“But ultimately, Lewandowski hit the Messi and Ronaldo era, and now looks to be catching the start of the Haaland and Mbappe era.”
Neville: Neymar will go down as a great
Image: Neymar has struggled to find consistency at PSG due to fitness issues
PSG’s trip to the Bernabeu on Wednesday is not just a chance for Messi and Mbappe to strengthen their claim for the crown of world’s best. It is also a chance for Neymar.
The Brazilian’s time in Paris has perhaps not fully lived up to expectations following his £200m move from Barcelona in 2017, with persistent injury problems impacting his availability, meaning he has never made more than 20 league appearances for PSG in a single season.
But his brilliance remains aged 30. Neville knows that as well as anyone having watched him dismantle his Valencia side with Barcelona during his time as the La Liga outfit’s head coach.
“Neymar will be remembered as one of the greats,” Neville says. “He’s won the Champions League with Barcelona, and it would be a great achievement if he did the same with PSG.
“Luis Suarez, Neymar, and Messi beat us 7-0 when I was at Valencia. I was at pitch level, watching them very closely destroy a team I was coaching, and I have never seen anything like it in my life.
“In terms of speed of play, talent, skill, agility, intelligence, link-up play – I’ve never seen forward play as creative and skilful as I witnessed that day in my life.
“I saw Tevez, Ronaldo and Rooney, I thought that would be as good as I would see, but that three at Barcelona were off the scale.”
Carragher says: “I think he has been one of the best in the world for a long time. I think he’s a top player.
“He gets a little bit of criticism at different times, maybe because he didn’t become the best player in the world.
“He moved to Paris Saint-Germain and I didn’t like that. I think he went for the wrong reasons.
“He was in a brilliant team at that time with Suarez and Messi as a front three and Barcelona the best team in the world.
“He left that maybe for selfish reasons to become the Ballon d’Or winner and try to take Paris Saint-Germain to a Champions League.
“There’s no doubt he’s a great player but I think he’s missed that chance to be the best player in the world, certainly with Mbappe and Haaland now coming.”
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