There was a beautiful irony when the team sheets filtered through an hour before Chelsea’s Champions League tie with Atletico Madrid.
The two players selected by their coaches to lead the attack in this highly-anticipated round-of-16 clash were a couple of 34-year-old ‘has-beens’, or so their former employers would have you believe when they sanctioned their departures.
Arsenal (formerly of Olivier Giroud) and Barcelona (formerly of Luis Suarez) are either not in the Champions League, or look destined to crash out, while one of either Chelsea or Atleti will reach the quarter-finals.
Suarez has been sensational this season and currently leads the ‘Pichichi’ race in La Liga, thumbing his nose at those who thought he was past his sell-by date in Catalonia. But it was Giroud who stole the headlines in Bucharest with his acrobatic overhead kick, another ‘worldie’ to his catalogue of show-stopping finishes.
The goal means he has now scored more times in Europe than he has in the Premier League for Chelsea, truly making him the club’s ultimate ‘European’ striker.
Sevilla and Atlético Madrid have the joint-best defence in LaLiga this season, conceding 16 goals each in 23 games.
— William Hill (@WilliamHill) February 23, 2021
Among modern football’s most underrated players?
There is perhaps an argument to be made that Giroud is one of the modern game’s most underrated players. This is a man, after all, who has been capped over 100 times by France’s international men’s team, for whom only Thierry Henry has scored more goals. He is also a World Cup winner, a Puskas Award recipient, and even guided Montpellier to historic Ligue 1 success as top scorer.
And yet, it’s always felt like Giroud has never generated the kind of praise his career should warrant. Even now, at 34, Giroud has withstood the test of time and is still competing at the highest echelon of the sport, rolling back the years with that breathtaking effort against Atleti, which would certainly give his famous scorpion kick or flick-assist to Jack Wilshere a run for their money.
That strike in Romania brought up his sixth Champions League goal of the campaign, and has him level in second with a clutch of world-class forwards in the running for this year’s ‘Golden Boot’ award. Only Erling Haaland (eight) has scored more this term than Giroud, who actually has the best goals-per-90-minutes ratio of any player with more than one goal to their name (2.4, though four of those did come in one game against Sevilla).
He is now third only to Didier Drogba (36) and Frank Lampard (25) as Chelsea’s highest goalscorer in European football (18), overtaking Fernando Torres (17) on Tuesday night, while he also overtook his overall Premier League tally at the Bridge (17). He is simply a continental football specialist.
But his moment on the night nearly counted for zilch. As the stadium stood in suspended animation as VAR went through a protracted inspection of his finish, Giroud revealed after the match that he was “annoyed” with Mason Mount in that moment, as his teammate initially took the ball off him before it ricocheted in the air.
In the end, though, all was well as VAR determined the ball came off an Atleti defender last and Giroud had his moment of magic. Mount can breathe a sigh of relief.
A great scorer, and a scorer of great goals
While it would not be difficult to create a highlight reel set to dubstep of Giroud’s spectacular finishes, he is far more than a ‘highlight-reel’ player. Rather, he is a player of genuine substance, who has not shirked his duties as a reliable goalscorer, wherever his career has taken him.
For Chelsea in 2018/19 he famously scored 11 goals en route to Azerbaijan as Maurizio Sarri clinched his first piece of managerial silverware and the Blues bested local rivals Arsenal in an all-London Europa League final, subsequently setting a new record for most goals scored by a French player in a single European season.
Fast forward a few years and he is now the oldest player to score in the knockout stages of the Champions League for Chelsea. Even Diego Simeone’s infamously obdurate backline couldn’t straight-jacket the wonderment of Giroud’s mind-bending scoring prowess.
To put into perspective just how explosive Giroud has been in Europe since crossing the Arsenal-Chelsea divide: he has scored 15 goals in his 16 starts for the club in both European competitions combined. He has also scored more European goals than Premier League goals (including this term) in two of his four seasons.
In 2017, Chelsea became the first English team to beat Atlético Madrid away from home in European competition.
Tonight, they've just become the first team to beat Atleti away from home in the #UCL knockout stages under Diego Simeone.
Although, there might be an asterisk. 😅 pic.twitter.com/tXDVN1VXtx
— William Hill (@WilliamHill) February 23, 2021
Not only did Giroud come back to bite the hand that once fed him in Baku, breaking the deadlock as Chelsea clinched the Europa League at the expense of Arsenal, but he has more than vindicated his £18m price tag in west London. He may not be the most prolific of strikers, but he is certainly no flat-track bully either.
Not entirely content with a cushy sinecure on the sidelines under Arsene Wenger, Giroud upped sticks when Arsenal spent handsomely to secure the services of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang on deadline day in January 2018, in a merry-go-round of transfers that saw Michy Batshuayi head to Dortmund on loan.
Since heading across the M25, Giroud, while not a consistent first-teamer, has proven a reliable scorer when called upon, an excellent ‘Plan B’ in the Premier League, a goal-getter in crucial games, and he has also approached the European circuit with relish.
The acquisition of Aubameyang may certainly have been justified by Arsenal, but Giroud’s contributions in ‘big games’ for Chelsea has perhaps got one or two regretting the sale in some quarters of north London.
Some of the goals he has netted for Chelsea include the aforementioned final in Baku against Arsenal, the deadlock-breaker in Chelsea’s FA Cup semi-final win over Man Utd last season (which they eventually lost to Arsenal), the only goal in a 1-0 league win over Liverpool in the club’s penultimate home match of 2017/18, and of course his four-goal haul against Sevilla this term.
When all is said and done it would be difficult to look at Giroud beyond anything other than a goalscorer of the highest calibre and, for Chelsea, their ultimate ‘European’ striker.