Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 February 2020

Chelsea v Arsenal: Olivier Giroud derby takes place with the man himself heading for the exit

'Best target man in the world' has divided opinion at both London clubs but remains vital to his national team's plans

Olivier Giroud was the top goalscorer in the Europa League last season as Chelsea won the trophy. Reuters
Olivier Giroud was the top goalscorer in the Europa League last season as Chelsea won the trophy. Reuters

The Olivier Giroud derby will take place without Olivier Giroud. Chelsea against Arsenal pits the Frenchman’s two English clubs against each other.

Much separates west from north London and, over eight seasons, Giroud has divided opinion in both. He has been starter, substitute, scorer, selfless foil and, at Arsenal at least, a scapegoat.

He is in the Stamford Bridge departure lounge now. “With Oli, there isn’t much more to say,” said Frank Lampard on Monday, so a footballer who has not featured since November will not play as he waits for his eventual exit.

Possibly to Aston Villa, maybe to Inter Milan to join Antonio Conte’s reunion of ageing Premier League all-stars. Either way, Euro 2020 looms large in the thinking of the World Cup winner who has ended up a back-up for both of his capital clubs.

It illustrates the Giroud paradox. His has been a career of contradictions; the joint lowest scorer in the World Cup –he ended the 2018 tournament both without a shot on target, let alone a goal – then became the highest in the following year’s Europa League.

There is a school of thought that he was not a good enough striker to win the Premier League, but he prospered in knockout competitions. His last six years have brought a World Cup, a Europa League, three FA Cups and an appearance in the final of Euro 2016.

It felt fitting his last Chelsea goal came against Liverpool in the European Super Cup. With seven goals against them, they were favourite opponents. He has healthy returns, too, against both Manchester clubs, Bayern Munich and Paris Saint-Germain. They are not the figures of a flat-track bully.

It is significant he has four times as many goals for France than Chelsea this season. It partly reflects the way that Didier Deschamps, a man who was happy to discard Karim Benzema, values Giroud higher than Lampard does. It also indicates he is at his best as the physical sidekick, the player Eden Hazard called “the best target man in the world.”

Hazard relished involving Giroud in close, quick one-twos, knowing he had the deft touch to accompany his size. Kylian Mbappe and Antoine Griezmann benefited from his capacity to occupy defenders.

But Giroud’s status feels lesser in England than his homeland. Only seven centurions have more caps for France. Only Thierry Henry and Michel Platini have scored more goals. Giroud has passed the immortals Just Fontaine and Zinedine Zidane in the last couple of years. It is not to say he is a better player, but it is an achievement.

North of the English Channel, he has faced annual battles for his place. He felt Arsenal’s enduring makeshift in the years they targeted Luis Suarez, Gonzalo Higuain and Benzema and moved Alexis Sanchez into the centre-forward role.

He was eventually finished off by the signings of Alexandre Lacazette, another he keeps out of the France side, and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang in successive windows.

He proved a far better Chelsea forward than either Alvaro Morata or Higuain. Edinson Cavani is now of interest – “He’s a great player. We’ll see,” Lampard said - and it feels typical as Giroud’s has been a career where a more glamorous upgrade is seemingly always being pursued.

But regime change and stylistic alterations did for him. The symbolic selection of the young local Tammy Abraham for Lampard’s first game highlighted a shift in thinking.

Abraham has been prolific to vindicate Lampard but when he was injured against West Ham, Giroud started, was substituted and winger Christian Pulisic led the line.

Lampard cited the American’s ability to run in behind defences. It is something Abraham can do and Giroud cannot. It is why his race in London seems run.

Updated: January 20, 2020 07:15 PM

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