Who will replace Messi and Ronaldo as leading stars once they retire?

Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo now have company on football’s centre stage… so who, from a Barcelona teenager to a Borussia Dortmund assist-king, are the emerging proteges that will take their place among the greats of the game?

  • Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are in the twilight of their glittering careers 
  • There are a number of players who are already joining them on centre stage 
  • From Kylian Mbappe to Ansu Fati, Sportsmail looks at the new stars of today

The evergreen pair of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo may continue to defy the laws of time but a changing of the guard has started to emerge at football’s elite level.

From Kylian Mbappe’s heroics with France and PSG to the stunning emergence of Erling Haaland in the present campaign, the stars of the next decade are already beginning to shine. 

It is Mbappe who appears to be the leading contender to take on the mantle from Messi and Ronaldo, if measured in the potential to go on and win numerous Ballon d’Or titles.

Cristiano Ronaldo is still going strong with Serie A leaders Juventus at the age of 35

Barcelona’s Lionel Messi, 32, pictured with his Ballon d’Or title in December last year 

Kylian Mbappe is the leading contender to succeed Messi and Ronaldo at football’s zenith

On the international stage, Mbappe already has a World Cup medal to his name with France. At club level, Mbappe needs his PSG side to make more of a fist of winning the Champions League, although it would take a mega bid from one of Europe’s elite clubs to prise him away from France.

At present, PSG trail Borussia Dortmund 2-1 after their last-16 tie this week, where a youthful Dortmund side were inspired to victory by their new striker, Erling Haaland.

The 19-year-old scored both goals, taking his tally for the German club to 11 in seven games after his January move from Red Bull Salzburg, where he fired in 29 goals in 27 games over the course of 12 months.

At Dortmund, for the next few months at least, Haaland will be playing in attack alongside Jadon Sancho, one of the most thrilling creative players in the game.

Sancho switched from Manchester City to Dortmund in 2017, at the age of 17, and went straight into the first-team. He has reaped the rewards from the exposure to first-team football, assisting 40 goals and scoring 36 in just 80 matches.

Erling Haaland has exploded onto the scene with RB Salzburg and now Borussia Dortmund

His team-mate, Jadon Sancho, is linked with summer move for a fee between £100m-£120m

Liverpool are interested in Sancho, who could join up with Trent Alexander-Arnold at Anfield

It is believed Sancho is readying himself for a return to the Premier League, with Liverpool and Manchester United leading the race for his signature. A bid between £100m-£120m will be enough for Dortmund to agree to part ways.

Should he join Liverpool, he would link up with England team-mate Trent Alexander-Arnold, who has forged a reputation as one of the most exciting full-backs in football under Jurgen Klopp’s guidance.

The 21-year-old has already played 121 times for his boyhood club, winning the Champions League last season and is an impending Premier League title winner. He has, like Sancho, developed a reputation as an assist-maker, laying on 32 goals and scoring another six.

Soon, Alexander Arnold will be facing Atletico Madrid’s Joao Felix in the second leg of their Champions League last-16 tie. Felix was a breakthrough talent at Benfica, scoring 20 goals in just 42 games before Atletico swooped last summer in a stunning £114m transfer.

His scoring stats are yet to transfer across in Span, where he has got four goals in 24 games. Felix’s emergence is certainly one to watch over time though and his relationship with Ronaldo for the Portuguese national side at Euro 2020 this summer.

Joao Felix moved to Atletico Madrid for a stunning £114m fee from Benfica last summer

Ansu Fati, 17, burst onto the scene at Barcelona this season and is a major talent

Vinicius has established himself as a player of growing importance under Zinedine Zidane

Across Madrid, at Real, Brazil international Vinicius is establishing himself as a regular under Zinedine Zidane. A bit like Felix, goals haven’t come too quickly to him just yet, with six goals in 55 games. 

The same can’t quite be said for 17-year-old Ansu Fati who, under the nose of Lionel Messi, signalled a thrilling emergence into the first-team fold this season.

He scored two goals in his first three appearances for Barcelona, when he was just 16, and has gone on to make 21 appearances for the Catalan club, taking his tally to five goals so far this season. 

When Messi does eventually call it a day, Barca could have a ready-made homegrown talent waiting to fill the void. It might just be football’s least envious task.

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