The PSG striker was under pressure ahead of Thursday’s Nations League semi-final but gave an emphatic response with a match-winning display
Kylian Mbappe inspired France to Sunday’s Nations League final against Spain with arguably the most impressive 45-minute display of his career to date.
Admittedly, the Paris Saint-Germain forward will have more spectacular performances both in terms of statistics and in terms of content, but the context in which he rallied to inspire Les Bleus to recover from a two-goal half-time deficit was the most trying of his career.
Mbappe, who became the quickest France player to 50 caps aged just 22 and 291 days, is not a player used to coming under pressure, yet when he took to the field at Juventus’ Allianz Stadium on Thursday, he was weighed down by circumstances.
These were not evident, though, as he brought life to Didier Deschamps’ ailing side by creating their opening goal for Karim Benzema. Neither did his critical missed penalty in Euro 2020 appear to be a burden when he fired into the top corner of Thibaut Courtois’ net to level the game.
That he did not have a hand in France’s late winner, dispatched so crisply into the net from Theo Hernandez after a surge down the right from Benjamin Pavard, was almost unjust.
Come full-time, though, Mbappe had successfully overcome his professional tumult and was evidently the star man.
It was much-needed relief for a player who has come under fire in recent weeks.
He chose Monday to break his silence over his failed summer transfer to Real Madrid, admitting that he told PSG that he wanted to leave as early as July. That interview on radio station RMC was swiftly backed up by a similar discussion with L’Equipe, published the following day.
Out of contract next summer, his future has been plastered all over the press for months, with his refusal to sign a new deal with PSG sufficient to frustrate fans of the club to boo him prior to a recent Ligue 1 meeting against Clermont.
On top of this was a recent media storm over his relationship with PSG team-mate Neymar. Mbappe admitted that he branded the Brazilian a “tramp” but equally explained that there will be no lasting implications of the incident.
The international break might in regular circumstances have acted as an umbrella for the storm of attention such remarks inevitably caused, but these were no regular circumstances.
Indeed, Mbappe had drawn much attention during the summer due to what was perceived as a sub-par display at the European Championship. This was capped by his decisive failure in a penalty shootout against Switzerland in the last 16, which meant there was more than just an equaliser riding on his midweek kick; Mbappe’s very credibility with the national team was on the line.
His answer was emphatic, both in the style and effectiveness of his play.
While France had laboured in the first half, Mbappe radiated brilliance in the second, aided by a team that pressed in both a higher and hungrier manner.
Nevertheless, at times he appeared to be playing at a gear or two higher than anyone else on the field, rekindling the type of form that PSG have not seen often enough this season, despite a return of four goals and five assists in 11 games.
“We said things to each other at half-time and we came back with real intentions,” he told the French FA’s social channels. “We were better in our transmissions, we created chances. It gave us hope. In the end, it was completely crazy.”
Certainly, Mbappe thrived playing off the left, where he was afforded more room than he has grown used to in his central role with PSG.
His relationship with possible future club-mate Benzema, meanwhile, seems to lean upon serendipity as much as a genuine understanding for the moment. Every so often, Mbappe will do something incredible that Benzema profits from, yet there is no clear rhythm or pattern to what they are doing.
Given that the pair have only played a handful of matches together, though, that should hardly be surprising. And in a strange way, this should be encouraging both for France and Real Madrid as there is evidently so much potential in the duo.
“I love playing matches like that,” Mbappe said. “These are pressure matches that everyone watches and that everyone wants to play in.”
Certainly, all eyes were on Mbappe against Belgium and for once there was an expectation that he might fail.
He did not, instead producing the type of display that will whet the appetite of Real Madrid fans, many of whom will hope he is not quite as scintillating when France meet Spain in Sunday’s final.