Ex-Liverpool man Michael Owen has it all wrong about Kylian Mbappé and PSG

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Michael Owen may think that Kylian Mbappé can 'carry' PSG to the Champions League - but recent results suggest otherwise.

There’s no doubting the validity of one remark Michael Owen made on TNT Sports in the wake of Paris Saint-Germain’s 4-1 aggregate victory over Real Sociedad in the Champions League – that Kylian Mbappé is “probably the most dangerous player on the planet at the moment.”

You can make arguments in favour of Erling Haaland or Harry Kane or perhaps even an ageing Lionel Messi, of course, but Mbappé is fundamentally as good as they come, and it was his unquestionable brilliance that carried his team through a potentially tricky fixture in San Sebastian and into the quarter-finals.

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It’s the rest of Owen’s comments that suggest a slight lack of familiarity with the current circumstances surrounding PSG, the Qatar-backed club who have dominated French football for many years now.

“To win a Champions League you need some special players in your team,” said the former Liverpool and England striker. "[PSG] probably don’t have enough of them to win it this season but if there is one man that could carry them to victory it’s this guy.”

Let’s call that half-right – PSG probably don’t have enough world-class players to win the Champions League this year, at least if you're doing it all on paper. But where Owen is likely wrong is the assumption that Mbappé’s undeniable class is dragging his team up by the scruff of their collective neck. Recent evidence suggests that the opposite is sometimes true.

In PSG’s last two Ligue 1 matches, a 0-0 draw at AS Monaco and a 1-1 tie at home to Rennes, Mbappé has been subbed off, first on 65 minutes and then at half-time against Monaco, his former club. The result was twofold – firstly, pictures of a fed-up Mbappé watching the game with his mother in the stands which were taken as an indication that he had fallen out with manager Luis Enrique. The second was an improvement in PSG’s performances.

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Mbappé has announced that he will leave PSG this summer, seven years after becoming the poster boy for Qatar’s wildly expensive public relations project. Real Madrid is his likely destination, and judging by the way he’s playing it seems like his mind might be in the Spanish capital already.

In the first half against Rennes, with Mbappé on the field, PSG were dismal, managing just one shot on target and a total xG of 0.3. In the second, during which Mbappé was removed, they improved dramatically – twice as many shots both on and off target, five times the volume of xG, and a late penalty which was tucked away by Gonçalo Ramos, the former Benfica striker who had replaced Mbappé.

Then the pattern repeated itself in the Principality. In the first half, PSG bossed possession but created precious little. In the second, with Mbappé huffing away in the posh seats at the Stade Louis II, they were far more dangerous – generating more and better chances and showing greater drive and verve across the pitch. In the end, they were unlucky to draw a blank.

Nor did PSG’s improvement without Mbappé seem like a fluke. He was especially turgid against Monaco, looking disinterested and certainly not determined to make the difference his team needed. Enrique has openly said that subbing him off was essentially seen as preparation for life without him, but it was also justified by the level of his performances.

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Of course, Mbappé has still been excellent across the course of the campaign. His 21 league goals make him the top scorer in the French top tier by a mile, his total set nine higher than Jonathan David and Alexandre Lacazette have managed in second place – and there’s no question that he made the difference in an even match away to Sociedad, creating space with technique once, raw pace a second time and in both cases sliding the ball into the side netting at the far post in a manner we’ve seen a hundred times.

Mbappé is still brilliant, in other words, but all is not quite well. Since confirming his departure there has been a definite drop-off in productivity and performance, at least until he made the difference in Spain last night, and there is speculation that his relationship with the rather prickly Enrique is deteriorating.

In public, Mbappé has remained typically diplomatic: “My relationship with the coach is good. There is no problem even if people might think there is. I have many issues but the coach is not one of them.”

Perhaps he’s telling the truth, and perhaps he isn’t – Mbappé was trained in media handling by his parents from childhood, and seldom lets the mask slip. But even if he and Enrique are getting on just fine, then one of those other “many issues” appears to be on his mind.

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The blunt fact is that in recent matches, it would be more accurate to say that Mbappé has been dragging PSG down rather than lifting them up as Owen suggests that he might. Sociedad was a definite exception, but if performances like that buck the trend rather than being the rule going forward, then it will not bode well for their chances of finally winning the Champions League.

It's also worth noting that PSG under Enrique seem to be a rather different beast to the superstar-laden but flaky teams we have become accustomed to. The former Spanish national coach has tried to change the dynamic in the dressing room and on the pitch, emphasising teamwork and giving younger players more chances, most notably the magnificent Warren Zaïre-Emery.

“Our objective is to win, but also to have an identity as a team,” Enrique told PSG’s club website in an interview in which he also stressed the importance of harmony and teamwork on a number of occasions. It may sound like a platitude, but given the fractious, ego-driven nature of the teams which were built around marquee signings like Mbappé, Neymar and Messi, it also represents a substantive change of approach.

With Neymar and Messi gone, Mbappé is the last of the gilded players that Qatar hoped to buy the Champions League with. The squad list already looks less like a collection of galácticos, but the team are also playing more consistently than they have done for some time.

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The remarkable 4-1 defeat to Newcastle United in the Champions League is now firmly in the rear-view mirror. That is one of just three defeats they have suffered all season, and they haven’t lost at all since a 2-1 reverse in Milan on 7 November. That makes it four months without losing, and while there have been a couple of disappointing draws in there, they look more coherent, more disciplined and more difficult to break down than the PSG we are used to, and are eight points clear at the top of Ligue 1.

In seasons gone by, the game against Sociedad was precisely the kind of banana skin upon which PSG would have performed one of their many comedic continental pratfalls. They have specialised in finding unlikely ways to fail in Europe. This time, though, they won 4-1 over the two legs and did so in relative comfort. Mbappé got three of the goals and provided much of the inspiration in the second leg, but the team performance was solid too, especially in the first leg at the Parc de Princes, which they dominated.

So not only has Mbappé not always been hauling his team upwards as may seem to be the case if you only watched Tuesday’s highlights, but PSG are slowly moving towards a point where they need him rather less. They probably aren’t quite good enough to win the Champions League this season – a few too many key players are too young, perhaps, and they are lacking a genuine creative spark in midfield – but whether they win or lose, it looks less and less as though Mbappé’s performances will really make the difference on their own either way.

In the game against Sociedad, Mbappé demonstrated that he remains one of the best on the planet – but in the games against Rennes and Monaco, PSG demonstrated that they can probably get by without him, and perhaps even be better for it. They probably won’t win the Champions League this season either way, but if they are to do so it will be more about the team that Enrique is building than it will be about their departing and dispirited star player.

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