Is the weight of expectation getting to Kylian Mbappé, Jude Bellingham?

Is the weight of expectation getting to Kylian Mbappé, Jude Bellingham?

Published Apr. 11, 2024 6:52 p.m. ET

Kylian Mbappé and Jude Bellingham's names seem to be intrinsically linked these days; widely regarded as the best players in the world, dueling contenders for the Ballon D'Or, lead men for the two favorites at this summer's European Championships, probable future teammates at Real Madrid.

Pretty much every time they are compared it is on account of their continued excellence, which made this past week's critical Champions League quarterfinal first legs a jarring twist in what has otherwise been a triumphant tale.

In what was arguably the most important game of the club season so far for each man, both of them fluffed their lines.

Bellingham was not at his usual standard in Real Madrid's thrilling 3-3 draw with Manchester City, nor particularly close to it, giving the English club a psychological boost heading into Wednesday's second leg.


The 20-year-old was outplayed by England teammate Phil Foden, whose stunning display, highlighted by a blistering goal from outside the penalty area, proved to be the most important individual contribution of the night.

Indeed, Bellingham can count himself fortunate to even be taking part in the rematch, as his frustrated response to rough treatment from Rúben Dias could easily have earned him the yellow card that would have triggered a suspension. And while Madrid did at least avoid defeat to give themselves some hope before visiting the Etihad Stadium, that was largely down to the efforts of Vinícius Jr. and a superb late volley by Federico Valverde.

Yet it was Mbappé's showing in Paris St. Germain's 3-2 home defeat to Barcelona that truly raised eyebrows. The superstar forward was a world removed from his usual standard, managing not a single shot on target and just 44 touches of the ball across the 90 minutes.

On precisely the kind of stage Mbappé normally loves, he was completely overshadowed by the calm decisiveness of Barça's Raphinha, who turned in a pair of goals that shifted the clash in his team's favor.

[Related: Barcelona comes back to top PSG in Champions League]

It is a little hard to know what to make of what happened. Given the gravity of the matchups, should it be taken as a cause of serious concern — just two months before the Euros no less — that neither player was able to show his true worth?

If there is anything we have come to know about Bellingham and Mbappé, it is that they are able to shine when it matters most. Think of the World Cup final, when Mbappé singlehandedly dragged France back into the contest, courtesy of two equalizing goals and another in extra time. Or the way Bellingham has glowed so brightly in his initial season at Madrid, singularly unfazed by the daunting pressure of switching to such a storied club.

Perhaps it is exactly those exploits that have led us to demand too much. Perhaps the level they have attained has spawned a set of expectations that are unrealistic, even for themselves. This is indeed the era of the superhero soccer player, but even caped crusaders and men of steel make mistakes from time to time.

Mbappé was savagely criticized for his efforts midweek, but let us not forget he has managed 39 goals in 41 appearances in all competitions this season, even with claims that he has checked out and has one foot on the plane to Madrid — his likely transfer destination in the summer — ringing in his ears.

The most explosive remarks came from former France international and 1998 World Cup winner Christophe Dugarry, who pulled no punches in his assessment of Mbappé's attitude.

"His behavior … was simply scandalous," Dugarry told RMC Sport radio. "It is a scandal for football, it is a lack of respect, it is a betrayal for his supporters. (He) spit in the face of the Champions League. The attitude he had for this match was an absolute disgrace."

As for Bellingham, it is easy to forget that he is still at such an early stage of his career, such is the level of maturity he displays on and off the field. It is a series of broad burdens he carries; implied responsibility for setting the tempo for Madrid each time it plays, the weight of potentially spurring England to its first major trophy since 1966, and to continue performing at such a jaw-dropping level.

These are the kind of requirements that are reserved only for soccer's very best, the chosen few deemed good enough and with enough character to lift the sport on their shoulders.

For well over a decade, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi conditioned the soccer public to confidently presume fireworks would happen any time a game of note was taking place.

If the past week served to remind us that Mbappé and Bellingham, while mind-blowingly good, are not completely infallible, it may be no bad thing.

Martin Rogers is a columnist for FOX Sports. Follow him on Twitter @MRogersFOX and subscribe to the daily newsletter.

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Kylian Mbappe
Jude Bellingham

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