Kylian Mbappe underlined his status as one of the world’s finest footballers with an exhilarating performance in Paris Saint-Germain’s Champions League destruction of Barcelona this week.
The France international produced a sensational individual display to become just the third player – after Faustino Asprilla and Andriy Shevchenko – to net a Champions League treble against the Spanish giants, all but ensuring the Parisian’s passage to the last eight.
It was a frightening display of a talent that first burst onto the scene as a teenager, Mbappe having already enjoyed an outstanding career with the promise of much more to come.
Mbappe has long been regarded as the player to assume the mantle as the end of the Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo era nears, but there are a whole host of brilliant young talents currently making their mark across the continent.
Here are our rankings of the five best U23 players in world football right now:
5. Achraf Hakimi
It’s beginning to become increasingly difficult to see how Real Madrid did not envisage a place in their squad for Achraf Hakimi, the full-back having enjoyed an impressive two-season loan at Borussia Dortmund before being allowed to leave the Bernabeu for Inter Milan on a permanent basis last summer.
Hakimi has excelled during an explosive debut season for a Nerazurri side seeking to end Juventus’ dominance of Italian football, Antonio Conte’s side the current league leaders and favourites to claim a first Scudetto in more than a decade.
The Moroccan international has fitted perfectly in Antonio Conte’s preferred system with his attributes perfectly suited the role of wing-back, the 22-year-old possessing blistering pace and an ability to create goalscoring opportunities when rampaging forward.
Hakimi has provided a huge 10 goal involvements (six goals, four assists) in just 16 league starts and has established himself as one of the best-attacking full-backs in European football, with speculation having surfaced that Real Madrid are considering a move to re-sign their former player.
Hakimi’s fine form sees him edge a number of talented stars to make our list of the best U23 players in Europe right now, with fellow full-back Trent Alexander-Arnold, Manchester City’s Phil Foden and fellow Serie A youngsters Matthijs de Ligt and Gianluigi Donnarumma unfortunate to miss the cut.
4. Joao Felix
Atletico Madrid’s £113m signing of Joao Felix stunned world football in 2019, splashing out a record-breaking fee on the forward who had just a single season of senior experience at Benfica.
That campaign saw Felix score 20 goals in all competitions as Benfica were crowned champions, being named as the winner of the Golden Boy award following his blockbuster move to the Spanish capital.
Felix’s first season in Spain proved largely underwhelming as he adjusted to the incessant demands of Diego Simeone, scoring nine goals across all competitions and mixing moments of brilliance with ineffective displays.
This season he has begun to justify the club’s record outlay and has become a vital figure in a side that has enjoyed a superb start to the season, losing just once to open up a five-point advantage over nearest challengers Real Madrid with two games in hand.
The summer signing of Luis Suarez – unceremoniously and regrettably cast aside by Barcelona – has helped bring the best out of the 21-year-old, the Uruguayan as tigerish as ever leading the line with his precociously talented teammate causing problems in a deeper role.
Felix has the technique, the movement and match-winning ability to inspire Atleti to success, whilst he has bought into Simeone’s style and system with a willingness to work relentlessly from the front.
There may be further setbacks and natural periods of inconsistency for a player still finding his feet at the highest level but Felix – who has already matched his goal return from last season – has the potential to become one of the game’s best.
3. Jadon Sancho
Borussia Dortmund’s brilliant wide man has been a headline attraction at the Westfalenstadion in recent seasons, emerging as one of the most exciting and productive wingers in world football.
Sancho’s decision to leave the Premier League for Germany as a youngster is well-documented, but it is a decision that has been vindicated and then some with the 20-year-old provided a platform to showcase his talents.
Last season the England international enjoyed a career-best campaign to provide 33 goal involvements (17 goals and 16 assists) in just 25 Bundesliga starts as Lucien Favre’s side finished as runners-up.
Manchester United expressed an interest in signing the England international last summer before refusing to meet Dortmund’s British transfer-record valuation, though the German side’s reported £105m price-tag appears reasonable for a player who could spend the next decade at the very top.
Sancho’s showmanship style means he leads the Bundesliga’s rankings for nutmegs this season, but there is far more than simply fleet-footed trickery with the winger also ranking first for shot-creating actions and passes into the penalty area.
An outstanding talent who provides both consistent entertainment and end product, there are few young footballers in world football with as high a ceiling as Jadon Sancho.
2. Erling Haaland
Erling Haaland’s rise has been both sensational and stratospheric, the forward emerging from relative unknown to one of Europe’s leading goalscorers within the space of one prolific season.
Haaland appeared almost as if he was constructed in a laboratory by a mad scientist seeking goalscoring perfection, a hulking physical presence with electric pace and a left foot that makes no mistake when given a sight of goal.
The Norway international plundered 28 goals in 22 appearances over the first half of 2019/20 for Red Bull Salzburg before opting for a move to Borussia Dortmund, making a mockery of suggestions he would need time to adjust to the higher standard of German football.
Haaland promptly scored a hat-trick as a substitute on his debut and has continued to fire at a rapid rate ever since, netting 39 goals in just 41 appearances across all competitions for the Bundesliga side.
Winner of the Golden Boot award in 2020, it’s frightening to think the forward is still just 20-years-old and should have at least another decade of striking fear into even the continent’s most dependable defenders.
1. Kylian Mbappe
For football fans of a certain vintage, Ronaldo – the irresistible Brazilian version of the nineties – remains the most captivating and exhilarating talent the game has ever seen.
Whilst Pele and Diego Maradona remain iconic historical figures and Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have set extraordinary and unparalleled standards of success, the pre-injury version of Ronaldo was as close to footballing perfection many have witnessed.
Kylian Mbappe’s meteoric rise and mesmerising style is perhaps as close as we have seen to a repeat of Ronaldo’s emergence, with the forward’s masterclass in the Camp Nou another example of his generational talent.
Mbappe was blistering against the Spanish giants in a performance that strengthened his case as the world’s best young player, if not currently the finest footballer on the planet of any age.
The France international’s electrifying pace and clinical finishing ability makes him arguably the most exciting talent in the game, Mbappe now Paris Saint-Germain’s third-highest goalscorer of all-time following his treble in Catalonia.
— UEFA Champions League (@ChampionsLeague) February 16, 2021
Mbappe’s list of accolades already includes twice finishing as Ligue 1’s leading scorer and winning four domestic titles, in addition to winning the World Cup and becoming the first teenager since Pele to score in the final.
The 22-year-old has scored a frightening 80 goals in 97 league appearances for PSG and has become the emblematic figurehead of their bid to become Europe’s best, an ambition that may well be fulfilled with the best young player in world football amongst their ranks.