Monaco teen star Mbappe doing better than Henry at same age
ABS-CBN Sports on Feb 21, 2017 11:10 AM
FILE - In this Saturday, Feb. 20, 2016 file photo, Monaco's Kylian Mbappe Lottin celebrates scoring the third goal against Troyes during their French League One soccer match, in Monaco. Because of his electric speed and style of play, the 18-year-old Mbappe has drawn comparisons with Thierry Henry, who is also France's record scorer. (AP Photo/Lionel Cironneau, File)
JEROME PUGMIRE, AP Sports Writer
PARIS (AP) — Monaco forward Kylian Mbappe, the rising star of French football, is doing better than Thierry Henry was at the same age.
Manchester City fans know all about Henry — Arsenal's all-time leading scorer — but are poised to get a glimpse of Mbappe's talent when the team hosts Monaco in the Champions League on Tuesday.
Because of his electric speed and style of play, the 18-year-old Mbappe has drawn comparisons with Henry, a world-class finisher and France's record scorer with 51.
Henry used to make the same dazzling runs when cutting inside from the left that Mbappe makes now, and the parallel is made stronger by the fact they broke into the Monaco side as teenagers.
Mbappe's first professional goal came at the age of 17 years, 62 days, which just happened to beat the Monaco club record held by Henry.
"Every player wants to write their own history. (Henry) has written his and I hope to write mine," Mbappe said. "I just hope it's as good or better."
Where Mbappe has the edge is that he can already play at center forward, a quality that Henry developed at a later age. It is testament to Mbappe's maturity that when called upon by Monaco coach Leonardo Jardim, he has switched easily from left winger to striker.
When Jardim rested Radamel Falcao, his main striker, for a French Cup game and a league game this month, Mbappe scored in both. Then, when paired alongside Falcao against Metz recently, he scored a hat trick.
"All that remains is finding his true position, out wide or through the middle," said Jean-Claude Giuntini, Mbappe's coach with the France Under-17s.
Jardim said on Monday that Mbappe "can play anywhere across the front three" but also suggested there was the option of playing in a deeper role, too. For the game against City, Jardim said Mbappe was competing with Valere Germain for a starting place.
Henry became a striker when he joined Arsenal from Juventus in 1999, by which time he was nearly 22.
Coach Arsene Wenger converted him from a winger averaging one goal every five games at his previous clubs into the Premier League's most feared marksman.
Mbappe, who joined Monaco at age 14, started drawing attention when still shy of his 17th birthday. It was for the way he set up Monaco's goal in a 4-1 loss to Tottenham in the Europa League, turning right back Kieran Trippier inside out before feeding striker Stephan El Shaarawy.
Amid growing interest, Mbappe turned down Real Madrid last summer. He previously visited Madrid's facilities aged 14, greeted in person by Zinedine Zidane.
"I was a kid who had the best player in French history speaking to him," Mbappe recounted. "It didn't happen because I wanted to stay in my country. I decided to come to Monaco, and I made the right choice."
Monaco has a gift for finding rare talent. Forward Anthony Martial joined Manchester United from Monaco in January last year, aged 20.
But Mbappe is showing even more potential than Martial.
Like Martial and Henry, he also grew up in the Paris suburbs. Following in their footsteps, he soon joined France's youth academy at Clairefontaine, nestled in leafy countryside about one hour from Paris.
The logical choice would seemingly have been to join Paris Saint-Germain. But Mbappe saw better opportunities with Monaco. It's a side known for developing young players, whereas PSG had a reputation for overlooking local talent, having missed out on Henry and Martial.
Last May, Mbappe helped Monaco win the Gambardella Cup — the French Youth Cup — by scoring twice in the final against Lens: An Henry-like finish for his first goal and a brilliant strike for his second.
Although Mbappe's signature move is stepping over the ball multiple times when running at speed — a hallmark of Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo — he has outrageous trickery of his own.
In the Euro Under-19 final against Italy last July, he received the ball down the right flank. Feigning to go one way, he flicked the ball the other way over the Italian player's head and then crossed it. All of this on his weaker foot.
He was the tournament's star, scoring five goals as France won. Earlier on, in a 2-0 defeat of Croatia, he scored another Henry-like goal, controlling a long pass perfectly with his right foot, then gliding around the keeper before slotting in with his left.
"He is full of surprises," Monaco defender Fabinho said on Monday. "We see this on the training pitch every day. He has amazing ability, he does things that stand out."
That Monaco has managed to keep Mbappe is largely down to a strong family structure.
Mbappe does not have a high-profile agent like Mino Raiola, who has Manchester United stars Paul Pogba and Zlatan Ibrahimovic among his elite clients. Mbappe, whose mother played professional handball and whose half-brother played striker for first division Rennes, is represented only by his Cameroonian father Wilfried.
When Mbappe was on the bench earlier this season, his father gave a newspaper interview bluntly advising Jardim to pick him.
The message got through.
AP Sports Writer Steve Douglas in Manchester contributed to this report.