Image credit: vverve / bigstockphoto
Cristiano Ronaldo recently became the first footballer to win the league title in England, Spain and Italy. The Portuguese sensation may not have quite given Juventus the edge in the Champions League that the Old Lady were looking for but he has undoubtedly improved the team on the pitch and has already repaid the £100 million plus transfer fee the club splashed out on him in off-field revenue.
At 34, Ronaldo’s longevity at football’s very top level is just another highly impressive facet of a career which will go down as one of the greatest of all time. Of course, Ronaldo’s career will always be indelibly linked with that of his greatest rival, Lionel Messi.
Messi is about to get his hands on the Liga title in Spain for an incredible 10th time. The 31-year-old has shown this season that he is still more than capable of being Barcelona’s hero when his team needs him and he will likely be the deciding factor in the destination of the Champions League in May.
Each time Ronaldo or Messi blesses football fans with another moment of genius or adds another piece of silverware to their collection, pundits everywhere remark just how fortunate we are to be living at a time when two of the greatest ever continue to strut their stuff. There’s an increasing amount of sadness that tinges such remarks though as we all know it won’t be long before both Ronaldo and Messi hang up their boots.
Time – and football – waits for nobody and there is a string of talented players ready to try and fill Ronaldo and Messi’s boots. With that in mind, we’ve profiled five players who could carry the torch for football in the coming years.
Monaco have shown a knack for developing and signing incredibly talented young players who go on to play for some of the biggest clubs in Europe over the years. Anthony Martial, James Rodriguez, Benjamin Mendy, Bernardo Silva, Thomas Lemar, Terence Kongolo, Fabinho, Tiemoue Bakayoko; they’ve all left Monaco for pastures new in recent seasons.
Even against the calibre of players in that list, Kylian Mbappe stands out. The 20-year-old burst onto the scene with some excellent performances for Monaco both in Ligue 1 and the Champions League and it wasn’t long before he was snapped up by PSG in fairly controversial transfer.
Mbappe has always been willing and able to put the off-field issues that come with being one of the world’s best footballers to one side and concentrate on the task at hand. That approach has already seen him star in a World Cup winning side before the age of 20.
Mbappe’s clutch of fine performances in Russia (which included him becoming the first teenager to score in the World Cup final since Pele in 1958) was the breakout moment for him in the eyes of the wider sporting public. Football fans already knew for a long time that Mbappe truly is a special talent who could become the sport’s main man when Ronaldo and Messi eventually depart the stage.
Ronaldo and Messi took different routes to the top of the game but both could describe their progress as fairly linear. Sure, there were problems along the way but neither really took a serious step backwards after becoming established stars. The same is not true of Paul Pogba who has struggled for considerable periods of time since re-signing for Manchester United. And yet, the Frenchman is arguably the man most likely to become football’s leading star in the years to come.
When he is on song, Paul Pogba is simply one of the best footballers on the planet. He has the vision to control a game, the calmness to score both inside and outside of the box, and the physicality to carry the ball long distances in short spells of time and to produce lung bursting runs into the penalty area.
The problem with Pogba is that his best has eluded him far too often in his career. His fans can talk about poor management, playing out of position and unfair coverage from the press all they like but the fact is that Pogba has flattered to deceive for much of the last three years. Becoming a global icon is about more than just what happens on the pitch in the modern game though. Add the strength of Pogba’s personality and examples of excellent leadership to technical ability as great as almost any other player and you have the recipe for an out and out star.
One of the few areas where the CVs of Ronaldo and Messi have some room for improvement is on the international stage. Ronaldo edges it over his rival thanks to Portugal’s Euro 2016 win but neither man has been able to come even close to replicating their success at a club level on the international stage. Raheem Sterling is in a similar position. He has achieved more with Liverpool and Manchester City than with England but the Three Lions’ recent improvement provides Sterling with the platform to be a major player in the biggest matches on the international stage.
Like Pogba, Sterling has justifiably been criticised for dropping below the levels he is capable of at times. Those critics have grown increasingly quiet though as Sterling’s improvement under the watchful eye of Pep Guardiola continues apace. He is now one of the first names on the Man City team sheets for even the biggest matches and is equally important for England.
He is a very different person to Pogba but Sterling’s incredible performances on the pitch for club and country over the last year have come at a time when what he’s done off the pitch have elevated him to even greater prominence with the public at large. He’s grown up as a footballer and a man in the full glare of the public gaze and has navigated that challenge excellently to become one of the world’s best footballers.
Any player who wants a chance of taking on the mantel of Ronaldo or Messi needs a big stage on which to operate. They don’t get any bigger than Real Madrid but the question surrounding Marco Asensio is whether or not he can grab the opportunity in front of him at the Santigao Bernabeu and become one of the world’s premier footballers.
There is no doubting that Asensio has the ability to reach the very top of the game. At the age of just 22 he has scored important goals for Real Madrid in La Liga and the Champions League and has become an important player for Spain. Having burst through under Zinedine Zidane, Asensio will be happier than most that the Frenchman has returned as the club’s manager so now really is the time for him to kick on and become one of Europe’s best players.
The only issue holding Asensio back from joining football’s true elite is his mentality. He’s suggested that there are other players at Real Madrid who should step up to lead the team forwards before him. That’s worrying but perhaps not surprising for a young player still learning the ropes. If and when he can be guided by Zidane to become one of Real’s go-to players, Asensio is capable of big improvements from an already very high level so the future promises a huge amount for him.
Few players have been compared to Ronaldo and Messi in terms of their outright ability as often as Eden Hazard. The Belgian is capable of winning games of any level all on his own as Chelsea fans will testify but there’s a nagging feeling that he is yet to really reach his potential by kicking on to become one of the best of the best.
Could it be that we won’t see what Hazard can do until he leaves Chelsea? Blues fans will bristle at that suggestion as he has regularly competed for major honours at Stamford Bridge but there is no doubt there are a few clubs at which he can play with a higher calibre of teammate.
By all accounts, Hazard loves the relative anonymity that living in London affords him and some have suggested that the value he places on his family life outside of football means shows that he lacks the single mindedness required to become one of the world’s best. Whether that is true is a matter of conjecture but there is no doubt that Hazard has the quality to fill the boots of Ronaldo and Messi.