Saturday, June 3 2023

When star France striker Karim Benzema was ruled out of the 2022 World Cup just days before the tournament began because of a thigh injury, it was very easy to envision how his absence would hurt the chances of an already injury-ravaged France squad.

After all, there are few teams that can withstand the loss of the reigning Ballon d’Or winner and one of the three best strikers in the world. But this is a France team that is one of the deepest international squads in recent memory. The man in line to become the country’s all-time leading scorer was poised to take Benzema’s place. And France may actually be a better team without Benzema on the field.

Thirty—six-year-old Olivier Giroud isn’t going to make anyone’s rankings of the best strikers in the world at this point unless that list is pretty lengthy. After spending much of the 2010s at Arsenal and Chelsea, he’s now at AC Milan, where he’s scored five goals in 13 games. Since he moved from Montpellier to Arsenal in 2012, he’s never scored more than 16 goals in a single season. And until he moved to AC Milan ahead of the 2021-22 season, he hadn’t started more than 11 games in a season since 2015-16.

As pacey strikers who could play anywhere up front took over modern soccer, Giroud had become a bit of a relic in his final years of the Premier League. No one has ever mistaken Giroud for one of the fastest players in the world. Instead, he’s great at holding up play in the middle of the final third and a constant threat on crosses inside the penalty box.

Those traits have made him imperative to France’s recent success, even if Giroud’s importance to the national team was borne more out of necessity than anything else.

AL KHOR, QATAR - DECEMBER 14: Olivier Giroud of France Looks on during the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 semi final match between France and Morocco at Al Bayt Stadium on December 14, 2022 in Al Khor, Qatar. (Photo by Harry Langer/DeFodi Images via Getty Images)AL KHOR, QATAR - DECEMBER 14: Olivier Giroud of France Looks on during the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 semi final match between France and Morocco at Al Bayt Stadium on December 14, 2022 in Al Khor, Qatar. (Photo by Harry Langer/DeFodi Images via Getty Images)
Olivier Giroud of France Looks on during the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 semi final match between France and Morocco at Al Bayt Stadium on December 14, 2022 in Al Khor, 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 delayed Euros after a six-year absence for conspiring to blackmail former French teammate Mathieu Valbuena over a sex tape. Benzema was found guilty of the charge a year ago and handed a one-year suspended sentence.

With Benzema out of the national team picture after the team’s 2014 World Cup quarterfinal loss, Giroud was the team’s main striker, even if he wasn’t getting many games at the club level. Giroud played in 91 matches for France from 2014-21 and became one of the most proficient French players in history over that timeframe with 49 goals.

His presence at center forward has coincided — and contributed — to the emergence of Kylian Mbappe. As Mbappe became one of the best young forwards in the game, Giroud was the man he teamed with on the international level. The two players have developed a clear bond on the field — something that can be seen in their excitement when either scores a goal.

“There’s a very good complicity between them,” France assistant coach Guy Stephan said earlier in the World Cup. “This complicity can be strong, very very strong, or less strong. At the minute, it’s very present. Kylian said also that he likes to have a pivot player in front to express himself, and it’s the situation with Olivier Giroud … the two players get on very well.”

With Benzema out of the picture, Giroud started all seven games as France won the 2018 World Cup. He played an integral part of that title run, though, perhaps ironically given his record as a goal-scorer, he didn’t score at all during that World Cup and had just one assist.

While the lack of goals and assists didn’t tell the whole story of Giroud’s contributions four years ago, they also made some French fans trepidatious in the aftermath of Benzema’s injury. The reigning Ballon d’Or winner was the team’s third projected starter ruled out before the World Cup due to injury and had scored four goals in four games at Euro 2020. He had provided the goals that Giroud didn’t at the 2018 World Cup even though France was eliminated in the Round of 16 a summer ago.

After not scoring in 582 minutes over four years ago and failing to score in two Euro 2020 appearances, Giroud was scoreless for just 31 minutes 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 in the second half with his head to tie Thierry Henry for the most men’s national team goals ever.

“He still has a strong character, I find that he moves a lot on the pitch, very mobile,” Stephan said when asked about the differences between Giroud in 2018 and 2022. “And I find him a bit more clever.”

Giroud broke Henry’s record late in the first half against Poland in the Round of 16 and then provided the winner in the quarterfinal against England by beating Harry Maguire to a corner kick and heading it past Jordan Pickford late in the second half.

While Giroud went scoreless and was subbed off in France’s semifinal win against Morocco on Wednesday, his performance in this World Cup has made it easier for France and coach Didier Deschamps to avoid the topic of a potential Benzema return for Sunday’s game. Benzema has been training with Real Madrid and could be fit enough for the final.

When asked about Benzema possibly being available on Sunday after the victory over Morocco, Deschamps said simply, “I don’t really want to answer that question. Next question. I do apologize.”

If Giroud had again gone scoreless this World Cup, the idea of Benzema starting the game could be an intriguing one. But it currently seems silly to entertain the idea of anything more than a late-game cameo for Benzema.

And if France becomes the first team since Brazil in 1962 to win back-to-back World Cups, it won’t seem silly at all to think France is better with Giroud up front.


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