Giroud has a chance to lead France’s World Cup attack

France's Olivier Giroud, left, and Karim Benzema run during a training session at the Jassim Bin Hamad stadium in Doha, Qatar, Saturday, Nov. 19, 2022. France will play their first match in the World Cup against Australia on Nov. 22. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)

DOHA, Qatar (AP) Karim Benzema’s injury opened the door for veteran striker Olivier Giroud to lead France’s attack at the World Cup in Qatar.

Benzema entered the tournament as arguably the most complete striker in the world, while Giroud was a likely substitute in the France squad. Last month, Real Madrid star Benzema won the Ballon d’Or. Then his World Cup ended when he tore a muscle in his thigh in training on Saturday.

With Benzema out of the tournament, Giroud should come off the bench to start against Australia in Tuesday’s Group D game. He has extra motivation to do well as he is just two goals shy of Thierry Henry’s record in France , of 51 goals.

”For me it’s a gift to play this World Cup, I’m treating it like a young player debuting in his first World Cup. It would be a bonus to beat Titi’s (Henry’s) record,” said Giroud. ”I am very happy to be part of this adventure. It is a great source of pride.”

The 36-year-old striker looks fit for AC Milan this season and his hunger is evident.

”I feel in good shape,” he said. ”I’m not setting limits for myself. My determination to remain at the highest level remains unchanged.”

It’s yet another comeback between Giroud and Benzema, and this time the pendulum has swung in Giroud’s favour.

Because last year, it was Benzema’s unexpected call-up that saw him take Giroud’s long-time starting spot at the European Championship – where Benzema led Les Bleus with four goals.

Giroud’s international career looked to be at an end when he was again overlooked by manager Didier Deschamps for the Nations League games in June – although he was doing well with Milan and helped the Italian club to the Serie A title.

Giroud’s relationship with Deschamps was once strong. But it turned sour as Benzema’s partnership with Kylian Mbappé blossomed, each scoring as France won the Nations League last year and scoring freely together in subsequent games.

With his back to the wall, Giroud did what he always did: prove the doubters wrong.

He had done just that at Arsenal, helping the London club win three FA Cups.

The same at Chelsea, competition leader with nine goals when winning 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-mate Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Those fans now love Giroud after he helped Milan to their first Serie A title in 11 years – scoring in big games and becoming firm favorites at the San Siro Stadium thanks to his work-rate and selflessness.

This season he continued, helping Milan reach the last 16 of the Champions League for the first time in nine years.

“You need to be decisive at your club and that’s the case with Milan,” said Giroud. ”It gave me a lot of confidence.”

Still, Deschamps made it clear when announcing his World Cup squad that Benzema was number 1 up front and Giroud was behind him in the pecking order.

Their destinies have been intertwined for a decade and it sometimes feels like a personal duel between them.

When Benzema suffered a long goal drought in 2013, a frustrated Giroud sat glum on the bench feeling he should be given a chance.

But then Benzema led France in goals at the 2014 World Cup, with Giroud playing second fiddle.

Things changed drastically when Benzema was banned from the national team for his alleged role in a sex tape scandal in October 2015, which led to a six-year exile from Les Bleus.

Giroud seized his chance and scored against Cameroon in a warm-up ahead of Euro 2016. But, notably, 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 1 car and a go-kart.

That was unfair to Giroud, who sometimes misses good chances but is a fine striker with more technical ability than many observers believe.

Giroud did well at Euro 2016, forging a good partnership with Antoine Griezmann as France reached the final. They played up front along with Mbappé as France won the 2018 World Cup, both competitions without Benzema.

Benzema took Giroud’s place at Euro 2020, but on Saturday night fate turned in Giroud’s favour.

So cruel for Benzema, but a reward, too, for Giroud’s inner strength and belief.

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