PARIS (AP) — France has found a new star in match-winner Dimitri Payet, who has a chance to follow in the footsteps of other talismanic players by making a lasting impression on a major tournament.

Not since Zinedine Zidane has France had someone who plays with such a mixture of grace and efficiency.

No wonder coach Didier Deschamps hugged Payet when he came off moments from the end of France’s scrappy 2-1 win against Romania on Friday.

Payet rescued France from a scrappy performance, creating six clear-cut chances inside the first hour — including Olivier Giroud’s opening goal — and then winning the match with a stunning late strike into the top left corner.

“I’m going to put him in ice so nothing happens to him before the next matches,” Deschamps joked after the Romania game. “Football’s easy when someone sticks it in the top corner — it solves many problems.”

What’s most surprising about Payet’s impact this season is that comes at the relatively late age of 29.

Payet was left out of the 2014 World Cup squad by Deschamps, and was taken off at halftime in a 1-0 defeat away to Albania last June. Earlier this season, Payet gave a television interview saying he thought there was no way he would get back in the France side.

After his winning goal against Romania, the tears flowed when he came off the field at Stade de France.

“It was a special moment for me,” Payet said. “All the pressure was released after a difficult year.”

His ability to keep creating chances with ease against a well-organized Romania side was reminiscent of Zidane, who led France to glory at the 1998 World Cup and Euro 2000.

There was even a moment late on that evoked memories of Zidane, when Payet rolled the ball across one player and flicked it through the legs of another.

“He gave us a match ‘a la Zidane’, with remarkable moves and amazing efficiency,” Zidane’s former France teammate Frank Leboeuf said on French TV on Sunday. “His talent has burst out.”

Payet has been transformed at West Ham in England’s Premier League, scoring several spectacular goals last season, creating many more and reading the game with electric speed.

Often viewed in France as technically gifted but inconsistent, he has thrived under West Ham coach Slaven Bilic — who has unlocked the full repertoire of his talent by building the side around him.

Payet has repaid him with dynamic midfield performances and eye-catching free kick goals against Blackburn, Bournemouth, Crystal Palace and Manchester United.

His powerful strike against Romania was even more remarkable because it was on his weaker left foot.

His stronger right foot operates with chilling accuracy, generating astonishing velocity despite a velvety way of caressing the ball with his instep, rather than kicking through it.

“He has an incredible touch, whether it’s with his left foot or right foot,” Giroud said. “He’s taken on another dimension and must continue like this.”

Copyright 2024 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Join our Newsletter for the latest news right to your inbox