As France seek back-to-back World Cups, is Olivier Giroud the man to unlock the team’s true potential?

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When France’s star striker Karim Benzema was ruled out of the 2022 World Cup with a hamstring injury just days before the start of the tournament, it was easy to imagine how his absence would hurt the chances of an already injury-plagued French side.

After all, few teams could stomach the loss of the reigning Ballon d’Or winner and one of the top three forwards in the world. But this is a French team that is one of the best international squads in recent memory. The man who would become the country’s all-time top scorer was ready to take Benzema’s place. And France could actually be a better team without Benzema on the field.

Olivier Giroud, 36, is not going to put anyone in the rankings of the best forwards in the world unless that list is quite long. Having spent much of the 2010s at Arsenal and Chelsea, he is now at AC Milan where he has scored five goals in 13 games. Since joining Arsenal from Montpellier in 2012, he has never scored more than 16 goals in a season. And until he joined AC Milan ahead of the 2021/22 season, he hadn’t started more than 11 games in a season since 2015/16.

As fast strikers who could play anywhere up front took over modern football, Giroud became a relic in his final years in the Premier League. Nobody ever considered him one of the fastest players in the world. Instead, he’s great at stopping play in the middle of the last third and being a constant threat on crosses in the box.

These traits have made him a vital factor in France’s recent success, even if Giroud’s importance to the national team arose more out of necessity than anything else.

Olivier Giroud of France watches the semi-final match between France and Morocco in Qatar. (Photo by Harry Langer/DeFodi Images via Getty Images)

The 2022 World Cup was set to be Benzema’s first since 2014. He returned to the national team in 2021 ahead of the belated Euros after a six-year absence for conspiring to blackmail former French team-mate Mathieu Valbuena over a sex tape. Benzema was found guilty of the charges a year ago and given a one-year suspended sentence.

After Benzema left the national team picture after losing in the quarter-finals of the 2014 World Cup, Giroud was the team’s main striker, even if he didn’t play many games at club level. Giroud played in 91 games for France from 2014-21, becoming one of the most competent French players in history with 49 goals during that time.

His presence as a centre-forward coincided with – and contributed to – Kylian Mbappe’s emergence. As Mbappe became one of the best young forwards in the game, Giroud was the man to work with at international level. The two players have developed a clear bond on the field, which is evident in their excitement whenever either player scores.

“There is a very good complicity between them,” said France’s assistant coach Guy Stephan at the start of the World Cup. “This complicity can be strong, very, very strong, or less strong. It’s very present at the moment. Kylian also said he likes to have a pivot player in front of him to express himself and it’s the situation with Olivier Giroud…the two players get along really well.”

With Benzema out of the picture, Giroud started in all seven games as France won the 2018 World Cup. He played a significant part of that title run despite, perhaps ironically given his goalscoring record, not scoring at all during that World Cup and having just one assist.

While the lack of goals and assists didn’t tell the full story of Giroud’s performances four years ago, they also scared some French fans following Benzema’s injury. The reigning Ballon d’Or winners became the team’s third scheduled starter to miss out through injury ahead of the World Cup and had scored four goals in four games at Euro 2020. He provided the goals Giroud didn’t even score at the 2018 World Cup despite France being knocked out in the round of 16 a summer ago.

After failing to score in 582 minutes over four years ago and failing to score in two Euro 2020 games, Giroud was only 31 minutes goalless at the 2022 World Cup. He started France’s first game of the tournament against Australia and scored the team’s second goal of the game. He then added another with his head in the second half to tie Thierry Henry for the all-time most goals of any men’s national team.

“He still has a strong character. I think he moves a lot on the pitch, very mobile,” said Stephan when asked about the differences between Giroud 2018 and 2022. “And I think he’s a bit smarter.”

Giroud broke Henry’s record late in the first half against Poland in the round of 16 and then ensured the winner in the quarter-finals against England by beating Harry Maguire with a corner kick and heading it past Jordan Pickford late in the second half.

While Giroud remained goalless and was substituted in France’s semi-final win over Morocco on Wednesday, his performance at this World Cup has made it easier for France and coach Didier Deschamps to avoid the topic of Benzema’s potential return for Sunday’s game. Benzema has been training with Real Madrid and could be fit enough for the final.

When asked if Benzema might be available on Sunday after beating Morocco, Deschamps simply said: “I don’t really want to answer that question. Next question. I apologize.”

If Giroud had gone goalless again at this World Cup, the idea of ​​Benzema starting the game could be intriguing. But it currently seems silly to think of anything other than a late-game cameo.

And if France become the first team since Brazil in 1962 to win back-to-back world titles, it won’t seem at all silly to think France are better with Giroud at the helm.



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