The next weeks will decide if Kylian Mbappe can usher in a new era in European soccer by knocking Lionel Messi off his perch.
The prolific Paris Saint-Germain striker is locked in a close tussle with the Barcelona star to win the Golden Shoe as the leading scorer in Europe’s top national leagues.
The challenge is big but within reach: Messi leads with 33 goals and Mbappe has 30 with five games left.
If he overtakes Messi, it will be a considerable achievement.
Since 2010, the award has only been won by Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo or Luis Suarez – who is Messi’s teammate.
Messi has won it a record five times overall, with Ronaldo on four – three times with Real Madrid and once in 2008 for Manchester United. Messi and Ronaldo, who is now with Juventus but far behind in this season’s top scorer charts, are the only players to have won it more than twice since the award was first handed out in 1968.
Given Mbappe is only 20 years old, winning the Golden Shoe this season would provide even more evidence that the World Cup winner is ready to take over from Messi and Ronaldo as the sport’s biggest star. Messi was 22 the first time he won the award and will be 32 when the next season starts. Ronaldo turns 35 next year, so time is not on their side.
The odds are looking quite favorable for Mbappe to overtake Messi this season, given Barcelona has one less league game to play than PSG and that the Catalan club is still involved in the Champions League.
Barca has also pretty much secured a 26th league title, needing only one more win to seal it.
This means coach Ernesto Valverde can feel comfortable resting Messi against Levante on Saturday ahead of the Champions League semifinal against Liverpool next Wednesday, and keep him fresh by leaving him out of the ensuing league game at Celta Vigo the following weekend ahead of the second leg in Liverpool.
Messi was kept on the bench on Tuesday night, too, coming on only during the second half of the win at Alaves.
Mbappe closed the gap to Messi with a hat trick in Sunday’s 3-1 home win against Monaco – his third of the season – and he is likely to play in PSG’s remaining league games since the club has no other distractions.
One factor, though, could slow him down.
With Neymar and Edinson Cavani returning from injury, it a means there’s less demand on Mbappe to carry PSG’s attack.
Therefore, the goals may be shared around more than they have been since February in the absence of the other two. Neymar and Cavani need as much playing time as possible in order to get their rhythm heading into the June 14-July 7 Copa America in Brazil.
Which might be just as well for Messi, considering Mbappe averages more than one goal per game so far this season. His 30 have come in 27 games, compared to a slightly inferior goals-per-game ratio of 33 in 31 for Messi.
Mbappe, who helped France win the World Cup last summer, also has PSG records within his sights.
He could match Cavani’s league tally of 35 from two seasons ago, although it will be tough to reach Zlatan.