Kylian Mbappe
France’s Kylian Mbappe in action against Denmark during the World Cup Group D football match at the Stadium 974 in Doha, Qatar, on November 26, 2022. His two goals in the game tied him with Pele’s record for most World Cup goals (7) before turning 24. Image Credit: AFP

Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have been hogging the headlines. Why not? After all, they are superstars. No conversation on football is complete without references to two of the greatest players. Their presence in Qatar is even more special since it could be their last World Cup.

How have the two fared? Messi was devastated after Argentina’s loss to Saudi Arabia but delved deep into his bag of tricks to conjure a magical moment to rescue the Albiceleste against Mexico. Ronaldo continued his record-breaking feats, becoming the only player to score in five World Cups by slotting Portugal’s penalty against Ghana.

It helped the duo remain in the news, but the two have been below their best. Messi shows up in the rival box only sporadically, a poor reflection on the man who used to harass rival defences regularly with his skill and trickery. The Argentine captain was largely missing against Saudi Arabia, barring that sumptuous penalty kick.

The pattern continued against Mexico for an hour before that stroke of genius. Messi soon followed it up with a perfect pass for Enzo Fernandes to uncork a sparkling curler. The No. 10 will need to produce more such moments if Argentina have to progress deep into the tournament.

Has Ronaldo slowed down?

Portugal have no such worries. They are not totally reliant on Ronaldo. He may be their talisman, but the Portuguese have Joao Felix, Rafael Leao, Bruno Fernandes, Bernado Silva and Joao Cancelo to lift the team out of tricky situations. At times, it felt as if Ronaldo was weighing them down.

The star’s skills may be intact, but he’s definitely slower, costing Portugal pace in the attack. The presence of speedy Leao makes up for it, and Felix has been on target. Maybe, Ronaldo will lift his game in the knockout phase. Even without his superb finishing, Portugal will have Ronaldo in the starting eleven simply because the sight of CR7 is enough to strike fear in the hearts of rivals.

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Neymar, who insists that Qatar World Cup will be his international swansong, had to hobble off with an ankle injury. He’s Brazil’s superstar, and his absence may have a more psychological effect on the team and their rivals. But the Selecao have such a reservoir of fearsome talent that Neymar will hardly be missed.

Luis Suarez is a pale shadow of the incredible poacher. His movements are sluggish, and predatory instincts have dulled with age. Not so much for his Uruguayan teammate Edinson Cavani, who still can terrorise defences.

Son Heung-min too has struggled to make an impact. Coming off an eye-socket injury wearing a mask, he was not incisive in South Korea’s clash with Uruguay. Son has to reproduce his form at Tottenham Hotspurs if South Korea have to qualify from the group stage.

Mbappe is the French shooting star

That brings us to Kylian Mbappe. The French forward is no longer the teenager who announced his arrival at the 2018 World Cup by scoring twice against Argentina — a feat that put him in the august company of Pele. At 23, Mbappe continues to find the net with frightening ease. His two goals against Denmark tied him with another of Pele’s records for most World Cup goals (7) before turning 24.

France haven’t missed the 2022 Ballon d’Or winner Karim Benzema’s clinical finishing as Mbappe continues to find the mark. Even Olivier Giroud’s patchy form is forgotten, while Antoine Griezman continues to revel in a withdrawn role.

Mbappe’s presence at the head of the French attack evokes images of Messi and Ronaldo at their peak. Each time he gets the ball, there’s an expectation of a goal. Mbappe’s electric heels help him speed past defences, while his power and precision off either feet have fetched goals with astounding regularity.

It’s fast turning out to be Mbappe’s World Cup. These are early days, but if the Frenchman can continue to score at this pace, France would become the first team to defend the World Cup since Brazil in 1962.

Kylian Mbappe is the name. 10 is his number. Keep your eyes peeled.