At half-time, the cameras picked out a French supporter dressed in a beret and striped jumper who was flourishing a hastily hand-written cardboard sign. It read: Gagner avec style [win with style]. And this victory over Poland was stylish all right. For the rest of the teams left in the tournament, worryingly so.
At the heart of it all was a player whose middle name might well be Style. No one in the game appears more delighted by what they encounter in the bathroom mirror every morning than Olivier Giroud. But never mind his slick sheen of a barnet and perfectly coiffed pirate’s beard, here he served up a masterclass in centre-forward play.
Clearly flourishing in a glorious Indian summer in his career, everything he did was not simply perfectly executed, it was an example of economy of movement, effort and delivery. Anyone keen to understand how to play as a front man should study showreels of his game. Take his part in Kylian Mbappé’s first goal. Antoine Griezmann, another of France’s over-abundance of talent, cleared a Polish attack from the midst of his own area. The ball looped forward and Giroud, patrolling the centre circle, brought it down and under control with the most deliciously smooth touch. He then immediately passed the ball out to Ousmane Dembélé, careering down the right.
Giroud, sensing that Mbappé was lurking in space on the other wing, then made a run towards Dembélé, drawing the Polish defence with him. Not that Mbappé needs much in the way of room to operate, but his strike partner’s deliberate, cunning and perfectly timed ghost move gave him an acre of space. He duly unleashed an absolute howitzer of a shot beyond Wojciech Szczesny.
Giroud was doing that sort of thing all game. Relishing having two fliers on either side of him, he was constantly moving and thinking and creating. Then giving the pair the ball, letting them do his running for him. He scored a lovely goal too, bounding on to Mbappé’s invitation of a through ball to hammer past Szczesny. It was his 52nd international goal, a strike which put at the top of the French all time list, now one above Thierry Henry.
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Moreover, he had the ball in the net a second time. Typically, it was an overhead kick. Nothing prosaic for him. Everything just oozes style. Unfortunately the referee had already blown following a collision between Szczesny and Raphaël Varane so it did not count. He took the decision with the sort of polite, dignified understanding – a simple shrug of the shoulders and nod of the head – that many of his contemporaries would do well to note (mentioning no names, Luis Suárez). When he was substituted in the second half, the ovation from the French supporters was long and warm. They know a winner when they see one.
“Oliver has always been an important player for us,” was his manager Didier Deschamps’ assessment. “We are seeing his quality. He has managed to remain mentally strong. To break the record of Thierry Henry, to score so many international goals, is some achievement. So well done. And well done to his team-mates who made it possible.”
At 36 Giroud has been reckoned too old by first Arsenal and then Chelsea. But you can see why Deschamps wants him in there. He plays in the young fliers on either side of him with the cleverest of touches, every pass caressed, every lay-off delivered with precision. And his presence allows Griezmann to lurk in the spaces behind him, ready to snaffle possession and create some more.
Giroud has long brought an air of complete self-satisfaction to his game. But the thing about him is he is still proving that his own estimate is not wholly unjustified. As that touch in the centre circle suggested, when it comes to football, he really is capable of the beautiful.