Has one person’s aptitude for a task ever been so justifiably questioned, yet so undeniably clear?
Olivier Giroud has, over the years, been a man much maligned, a forward whose killer instinct did not seem all that instinctive, guilty often of taking the ‘scorer of great goals, but not a great scorer of goals’ paradox to its respective extremes.
In club football, Giroud’s last 20-goal league season came more than a decade ago and in internationals, despite the World Cup winners’ medal dangling around his neck, he had to step aside for the return of Karim Benzema.
Yet, this morning, after scoring twice in France’s impressive win over Australia last night, Giroud stands alongside the great Thierry Henry at the top of his country’s all-time leading scorer charts, with 51 goals in 115 appearances.
Run through the names occupying that spot for some of the tournament’s other leading nations — Lionel Messi, Ronaldo, Pele, Miroslav Klose, David Villa, Wayne Rooney — and the scale of the achievement becomes clear. Giroud is not quite there yet, but with France in this kind of attacking form, and Benzema out of the tournament, it surely will not be long.
France had an unenviable injury list going into the match — and lost full-back Lucas Hernandez for the remainder of the tournament after he ruptured his ACL last night — and the curse of defending champions to negate here, the world on upset alert having seen Argentina come unstuck against Saudi Arabia in one of the all-time great shocks earlier in the day. The form book would have had Australia almost as unlikely winners.
Didier Deschamps, the first man to manage France at five successive major tournaments, had not lost a group game at any of the previous four and Les Bleus’ last reverse at this stage of a World Cup came amid the carnage under Raymond Domenech in South Africa in 2010. You had to go back to the same tournament for Australia’s most recent World Cup victory, with just one point from six games since.
So, as with England — with whom France remain on quarter-final collision course — and the abject Iran, there was a caveat. This is not a vintage Australia side, incomparable with the cast of Premier League favourites — Tim Cahill, Mark Viduka, Mark Schwarzer, Harry Kewell — that gave Socceroos outfits of previous tournaments both top-level experience and stature.
Of Graham Arnold’s starting XI here, four play in Scotland, two each in the Championship and the A-League, and one apiece in Denmark, Japan and Germany’s second tier. This stadium had been designed by the late Dame Zaha Hadid, the architect of the London 2012 Aquatics Centre, and at times the Aussies were out of their depth.
Even shorn of much name recognition, though, they had established themselves as a likeable bunch, sticking heads above the parapet with a video in the tournament run-up that highlighted the hosts’ abysmal human rights record.
Together, they had taken the long route to Qatar, through a turbulent qualifying campaign that lasted more than a thousand days and 20 games, 16 of which were played on the road because of Australia’s strict Covid border rules.
Arrived, they had to wait just nine minutes for what may end up the highlight of their campaign, a well-worked opener finished by 30-year-old Craig Goodwin.
Even by then, though, France’s superiority had been made clear, Ousmane Dembele and Kylian Mbappe rinsing their full-backs with ease inside the first minute.
Where Argentina had been rattled by a five-minute Saudi storm and never recovered, France seized the calm of a rather more cuddly atmosphere and delivered an emphatic response.
Adrien Rabiot headed Deschamps’ men level, then teed-up Giroud’s first after a fine touch from Mbappe. His second came with a trademark header to complete the scoring, after
Mbappe had glanced in off the post for his 29th France goal by the age of 23. It was a spoilsport reminder that however many Giroud ends up with, the mark may not last long.