Any lingering doubts that Kylian Mbappe is French soccer's most valuable jewel were erased Sunday as the teenage striker celebrated the world champions' return home with a superb display — and a goal — in a 2-1 win over the Netherlands.
Back to its home ground at the Stade de France for the first time since winning the World Cup in July, France was treated to an ecstatic welcome by nearly 80,000 fans, and 19-year-old Mbappe was the best player in the UEFA Nations League game.
The PSG striker, who grew up in the Paris suburbs, exposed Dutch defenders from the start with his fast pace and control. He almost put France ahead in the first minute, broke the deadlock in the 14th and created havoc near and inside the Dutch box throughout the game with the trademark dribbles that helped him become one of the stars of the World Cup in Russia.
Mbappe, who was the first teenager to score in a World Cup final since Pele in 1958, netted his ninth goal for France.
Ryan Babel scored a second-half equalizer as France struggled physically in the closing stages, but Olivier Giroud gave France a deserved win with 15 minutes left with a stunning left-foot volley that ended a 10-match personal goal drought. It was Giroud's 32nd international goal, a tally that makes him France's outright fourth highest-scoring player ahead of Zinedine Zidane.
The celebration party started well before kickoff with video footage depicting fans celebrating across the country on July 15 when France defeated Croatia 4-2 in the World Cup final. The highlights of France's campaign were then played on big screens, with every French goal igniting big roars in the stands.
The party continued after the match with a sound and light show consisting of the France players introduced one-by-one before a lap of honour with the World Cup trophy.
"The win was the most important thing in order to make this a beautiful party," France coach Didier Deschamps said. "I'm very happy for Olivier Giroud. Strikers go through periods when they don't score as many goals. He's useful to our play and he scored a lovely goal that gave us the win this evening."
Although the French players struggled in the final 20 minutes of their 0-0 draw in Germany on Thursday, Deschamps named an unchanged team, with 10 of the 11 players who began the World Cup final on the field. Skipper Hugo Lloris, who is out injured, was the only one missing, replaced by Paris Saint-Germain 'keeper Alphonse Areola.
Frenkie de Jong, the 21-year-old creative Ajax midfielder, made his full debut for the Netherlands as coach Ronald Koeman deployed a 4-3-3 formation for his team's start in the new UEFA competition.
France dominated the first half and almost took the lead in the first minute when Mbappe fired a right-footed shot, which was saved by Netherlands 'keeper Jasper Cillessen.
Mbappe had another effort from close range stopped by Cillessen a few minutes later as the Dutch struggled to keep hold of the ball. Mbappe scored in the 14th after Blaise Matuidi made the most of a poor clearance from Georginio Wijnaldum near the area and sent in a precise cross which Mbappe converted with a tap in.
Deschamps' players were happy to leave the ball possession to their rivals after they broke the deadlock. France's midfield looked as solid as usual, with Paul Pogba and N'Golo Kante quick to recover the ball and to launch counterattacks, while France's back four enjoyed a quiet night.
Mbappe pushed for more goals after the interval with long-range shots and bursts of speed. His strike partners Giroud and Antoine Griezmann had a more subdued performance but both contributed well to the defensive effort.
Against the run of play, Wijnaldum had a good chance to level in the 66th when he got past Samuel Umtiti but he fluffed his shot wide from close range. The Dutch took their chance in the next minute at the conclusion of a quick move that caught the French napping. Kenny Tete played a one-two and crossed the ball for Babel, who beat Areola at the right post.
Les Bleus pushed hard to get back in the lead and Giroud, who had missed a couple of chances earlier, was rewarded for his hard work in the 75th.
Giroud was picked out by substitute Benjamin Mendy and unleashed a perfectly timed shot.
"We reacted well after a poor spell, even though we felt a bit tired," Matuidi said. "Olivier Giroud's goal did us a lot of good, he always works hard and we're all behind him."
(WIth AP Inputs)