Oliver Giroud would have been restricted to substitute appearances if Karim Benzema was fit to take the field in Qatar. The Real Madrid forward was ruled out with a thigh injury on the eve of the World Cup, which opened the door for Giroud to feature in the starting eleven.
On Tuesday, in France’s 4-1 comeback win over Australia in the opening Group D match, the AC Milan forward scored twice, equalling Thierry Henry record as the France’s highest scorer in internationals–51 goals from 115 matches. Former Arsenal and Barcelona forward Henry played 123 matches for Les Bleus.
“It means a lot to be next to Henry on the national team top-scorer sheet. It is unbelievable and we couldn’t have hoped for a better start at the World Cup. I play football until my body allows me. I’m a competitor and I’m very passionate and still very hungry. As long as I feel good, I will do my best for the team to reach our target and tonight I feel very good. Like some friends said ‘like fine wine’,” an elated Giroud said after the match.
Giroud, who at 36 became the oldest France player to score at the World Cup, was never a prolific scorer. Neither did he possess a burst of pace like his fellow strikers. Even in the France squad, he isn’t as technically gifted as Kylian Mbappe, Antoine Griezmann or Ousmane Dembele. But the one thing he has in plenty is the desire to fight, to fulfill the coach’s demands.
France coach Didier Deschamps had no hesitation drafting in Giroud into the starting XI after Benzema’s injury. It speaks highly of his faith in the striker, and his delighted in being vindicated showed in the bear hug when Giroud was taken off late in the game.
Giroud’s first goal came in the 32nd minute when he tapped in an Adrien Rabiot cut back. His second was a powerful header in the 71st minute from a Mbappe cross. That the AC Milan striker was surrounded by his teammates as soon as he equalled the record shows the respect he commands among his teammates.
“He deserves respect for performing at the very highest level for so many years and delivering even when nobody seemed to believe in him. I am so pleased for him because he is a great guy. I hope he keeps going and beats more records,” right-back Benjamin Pavard said after the match.
Until Benzema returned to French squad at the 2020 Euro last year, Giroud was Deschamps’ go to man at the top of the attack, be it at the 2016 Euro, where they lost in the final to Portugal, or at the 2018 World Cup. He didn’t manage a shot on target in Russia but was credited with playing a huge role with his physical presence, hassling opposition centre-backs and freeing up Griezmann and Mbappe to weave their magic.
“He is important for our style; we need his supporting play. Olivier is always very generous and doesn’t complain about working hard. He might not have the flamboyant style but the team needs him even if he doesn’t score,” Deschamps said on the eve of the 2018 final in which they beat Croatia 4-2.
With Benzema in the mix of things at Euro 2020, Giroud played for just 40 minutes as a substitute. He lost his place in the squad thereafter and only got back in the mix in March thanks to his performances for AC Milan in Serie A.
The move from Chelsea to AC Milan at the start of the 2021-22 season was a kind of second wind for Giroud. He scored 11 goals as the Rossoneri went on to win the scudetto after 11 years. He has carried that form into the new season and has already netted nine goals in 19 matches in all competitions. It has led to the talk of him being offered a contract extension.
Benzema’s injury is even being seen as a blessing in disguise for France. Had he started, he would have been the focal point which would have limited Mbappe’s and Griezmann’s creativity, but with Giroud around both have freedom to express themselves.
Benzema once called himself a Formula One car and Giroud a go-kart. As things have panned out, France would like the go-kart to chug along as he has done in the past.