On November 26, Kylian Mbappe will walk out at the Santiago Bernabeu in the UEFA Champions League for Paris Saint-Germain. Next year, it could be the place he calls home.
Mbappe has had admirers on the Madrid board ever since his breakthrough with Monaco. They wanted him before he moved to PSG and still want him today. At the end of this season the Spanish giants will attempt to make Mbappe the most expensive signing in world football.
There is something missing in the Spanish capital right now, a Cristiano Ronaldo-shaped hole in everything that surrounds the club. The Portuguese's exit hit even harder than expected, and the arrival of Eden Hazard last summer has not eased the pain.
Conor Clancy, of Spanish outlet Marca, worked on an article this week describing how Ronaldo's shadow still hangs over the Bernabeu.
"They've missed his goals, clearly, and replacing his contribution was always going to be impossible," Clancy told B/R. "There aren't too many other players in the world who can finish chances with the same consistency as Cristiano. For all the bashing he gets for the number of shots he takes from strange positions, he never seems to miss the ones that really count.
"Karim Benzema has done very well since Ronaldo left, but, as much as I love him, even last season a lot of his goals came towards the end, when all hope was already lost. More than what [Ronaldo] did, I think Madrid miss his presence too. Just having him on the pitch makes it so much easier for players to believe they have a chance, even when things aren't going to plan. He lifts everyone around him, but they don't have that anymore, and not even Hazard can give them that."
This is where the Mbappe option becomes intriguing. Always improving, always living up to the hype, PSG's incredible forward has scored nine times and created a further four goals this season—giving him goal involvement every 46.2 minutes.
And Madrid have him very much on their radar for 2020.
Last summer, they were heavily linked with a bid for his PSG team-mate Neymar, but sources at the time told B/R how they were not aggressive about the situation, merely interested in what was going on and wanting to be kept in the loop over any developments.
They do not intend to revisit Neymar. According to sources who cover Madrid closely, club president Florentino Perez only has eyes for Mbappe when he watches PSG. Other board members are said to have a similar vision.
"Mbappe would go quite a way to satisfying the fans, for sure." Clancy says. "He's probably one of the few players who can replicate Cristiano's figures in terms of goals, and he'd lift the team as well just because of the pure excitement he brings. If he arrives to accompany Hazard in attack, Madrid should be able to challenge on all fronts again."
A report in Spanish outlet AS has suggested the budget for a big summer spend is already in place, with £138 million cash already available and a further £252 million available in credit—which is not attached to their plans for a stadium refurbishment.
The same newspaper reported recently too how Mbappe's Champions League hat-trick against Club Brugge led to WhatsApp messages being sent between Real Madrid's board of directors. The gist: "Have you seen what Kylian Mbappe did tonight?"
The France international is already the highest-paid 20-year-old in the game thanks to a salary worth £325,000 per week, according to Capology, but Madrid will realise his marketability off the pitch will match his value on it.
The upcoming fixture between the two sides will only build the hype around Mbappe. He was sidelined, along with Neymar, when PSG hosted Real Madrid in September. PSG tore Madrid apart, with Angel Di Maria taking the star role in a 3-0 victory. Anticipation is already building towards the next meeting.
Last week, Zidane said of the Frenchman: "What Kylian Mbappe does is not surprising. He is one of the best players, he demonstrates it with his statistics. But at the same time, it will not change anything for us: We will face a team. He has great qualities, we will have a special attention on him."
The Italian champions are in the midst of a long-term planning strategy aimed at ensuring the club are at the top of European football in five years' time, both on and off the field.
As part of that, €300 million (£259 million) is set aside to help bring in the next Ronaldo and ensure there is a seamless transition from this current side.
Perhaps this is why Madrid continue to consider other back-up options. This week there was a story from Sky Sports that they plan to offer £70 million plus Gareth Bale to lure Raheem Sterling from Manchester City.
That's not an offer that will tempt the Premier League champions into business, but there is an underlying truth in the story, as Madrid and Zidane are longtime admirers of Sterling.
The player himself is open to the idea of playing in La Liga one day, too, but insiders insist Mbappe is the bigger priority.
This week, ex-Monaco vice-president Vadim Vasilyev told French broadcaster Telefoot (h/t Marca) how Mbappe felt about moving to Madrid before joining PSG: "He (Mbappe) said to me, 'Deep inside me, I feel its too early I've only played for a year in my country, I don't want to leave like that. I'm Parisian. I want to become great here. Madrid will wait I think'."
They have waited, but after three seasons with PSG, they feel it is realistic that Mbappe will decide to test himself at the next level. They know he has been tempted before.
Sources told B/R that Mbappe seriously considered leaving PSG after his first season but was persuaded to remain after talks with his father and the club. Then, after Manchester United knocked PSG out of the Champions League last season, he declared at the Ligue 1 awards ceremony: "I have learned much here, and maybe it’s the time to take on more responsibilities, maybe at PSG, of course, or maybe elsewhere with a new project."
Mbappe may be young, but he is mature and wise beyond his years. He has kept PSG's directors and management on their toes throughout his stay.
When he represents Paris at the Bernabeu at the end of November, it is expected he will be warmly welcomed by the home crowd as they seek to give him a taste of what the next chapter of his career will look like.
PSG are looking to improve the terms and length of Mbappe's current contract, which runs to 2022, and it's fair to say any transfer will not be cheap—estimates in France suggest it will take at least £250 million to sign him.
But we should start taking Project Mbappe pretty seriously, because Madrid are coming.
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