DOHA, Qatar (AP)Karim Benzema’s injury has opened the door for veteran striker Olivier Giroud to spearhead France’s attack at the World Cup in Qatar.
Benzema entered the tournament as arguably the world’s most complete forward while Giroud was a likely substitute in the France team. Last month, the Real Madrid star Benzema won the Ballon d’Or. Then his World Cup ended when he tore a thigh muscle in training on Saturday.
With Benzema out of the tournament, Giroud is expected to move from the bench to a starting role against Australia on Tuesday in the Group D game. He has extra motivation to do well, since he is just two goals shy of Thierry Henry’s France record of 51 goals.
”For me it’s a gift to play in this World Cup, I’m treating it like a young player appearing in his first World Cup. It would be a bonus to beat Titi’s (Henry’s) record,” Giroud said. ”I’m very happy to be part of this adventure. It’s a great source of pride.”
The 36-year-old striker has looked sharp with AC Milan this season and his hunger is evident.
”I feel in good shape,” he said. ”I’m not setting myself any limits. My determination to stay at the highest level remains the same.”
It’s another swing in fortunes between Giroud and Benzema, and this time the pendulum has moved in Giroud’s favor.
Because last year, it was Benzema’s unexpected recall that saw him take Giroud’s long-standing starting place at the European Championship – where Benzema led Les Bleus with four goals.
Giroud’s international career appeared to be on the demise when he was again overlooked by coach Didier Deschamps for Nations League games in June – even though he was doing well with AC Milan and helped the Italian club to the Serie A title.
Giroud’s relationship with Deschamps was once strong. But it soured as Benzema’s partnership with Kylian Mbappe flourished, each scoring when France won the Nations League last year then scoring freely together in following games.
His back to the wall, Giroud did what he’s always done: prove any doubters wrong.
He had done that at Arsenal, helping the London club win three FA Cups.
Same at Chelsea, leading the competition with nine goals when it won the Europa League in 2019; then playing a key role in Chelsea’s Champions League success in 2021.
At Milan, he overcame hard-to-please fans who harshly compared him to club teammate Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Now those fans adore Giroud after he helped Milan win its first Serie A title in 11 years – scoring in big games and becoming a firm favorite at San Siro Stadium thanks to his work rate and unselfishness.
This season he’s carried on, helping Milan return to the last 16 of the Champions League for the first time in nine years.
”You need to be decisive in your club and that’s the case with Milan,” Giroud said. ”It’s given me a lot of confidence.”
Still, Deschamps made it clear when he announced his World Cup squad that Benzema was No. 1 in attack and Giroud was behind him in the hierarchy.
Their destinies have been interlinked for a decade and it’s sometimes looked like a personal duel between them.
When Benzema endured a long goal drought in 2013, a frustrated Giroud sat glumly on the bench feeling he should have a shot.
But then Benzema led France in scoring at the 2014 World Cup, with Giroud playing second fiddle.
Things dramatically changed when Benzema was banned from the national team for his alleged role in a sex-tape scandal in October 2015 that led to a six-year exile from Les Bleus.
Giroud took his chance and scored against Cameroon in a warmup before Euro 2016. But remarkably, French fans jeered him off the field. Some felt he didn’t deserve to play ahead of the more skilled Benzema, who once cruelly compared their different skill levels to a Formula One car and a go-kart.
That was unfair to Giroud, who has sometimes missed good chances but is a fine all-around striker with more technical ability than many observers give him credit for.
Giroud did well at Euro 2016, forging a fine partnership with Antoine Griezmann as France reached the final. They played up front together with Mbappe when France won the 2018 World Cup, both competitions without Benzema.
Benzema took Giroud’s place at Euro 2020, but on Saturday night destiny tilted back in Giroud’s favor.
So cruel for Benzema but a reward, also, for Giroud’s inner strength and belief.
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