Saturday 3 December 2016

Comment: Maligned Giroud delivers biggest Arsenal performance to reward Wenger's faith

Published 09/12/2015 | 21:56

Olivier Giroud celebrates after scoring the second goal for Arsenal
Action Images via Reuters / Andrew Couldridge
Olivier Giroud celebrates after scoring the second goal for Arsenal Action Images via Reuters / Andrew Couldridge
Olivier Giroud celebrates with team mates after scoring the second goal for Arsenal Action Images via Reuters / Andrew Couldridge
Arsenal's Olivier Giroud celebrates after scoring against Olympiakos at the Georgios Karaiskakis stadium

So Olivier Giroud is a big game striker after all, as his Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger has always suggested he was.

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On a night when the Gunners needed a hero to step forward as they battled to salvage their Champions League existence, Giroud rewarded the unyielding faith Wenger has shown in him over the last three years with arguably his most significant performance in his time at Arsenal.

With his team requiring a win by two goals to extricate themselves from what seemed like an impossible position in Group F not so long ago, Giroud stepped forward as the hat-trick hero who confirmed he was capable of shining when it matters most.

Of course, Wenger will not have been surprised that his compatriot delivered on a night that always had the potential to define Arsenal’s season. After all, this is the striker has been insisting is fit for purpose as a marksman who can lead his side to trophy success.

Regular visitors to Wenger’s Friday press briefings will confirm that his desire to defend Giroud when contrasting characters such Gunners legend Thierry Henry and Arsenal super fan/TV host Piers Morgan have singled him out for particularly crushing criticism and maybe now this display has confirmed his worth.

His three goals in the heat of a crucial Champions League clash in Greece were as clinical as they were crucial.

Arsenal's Olivier Giroud celebrates after scoring against Olympiakos at the Georgios Karaiskakis stadium
Arsenal's Olivier Giroud celebrates after scoring against Olympiakos at the Georgios Karaiskakis stadium

His first was a header that should have been saved by Olympicos keeper Roberto Jimenez Gago on his near post, with a cool finish for a second shortly after half-time putting Arsenal in the driving seat to qualify. His hat-trick was completed with a cool penalty that sent Arsenal into the last-16 of the Champions League for a 16th successive season.

Credit to Giroud. It would have been easy for the languid striker to crumble as he was constantly cast as a weak link in the Arsenal forward line, even though his scoring record in his time at the North London club has been impressive.

Any striker who has a record of scoring 49 Premier League goals in just 90 starts should be respected, but that statistic has not been enough to convince Giroud’s critics that he was up to the job.

The 19 goals he hit in an injury plagued 2014-15 season has been backed up by a record that confirmed he has scored eight goals from nine Premier League starts in this campaign, with his effectiveness coming off the bench also noted by Wenger in recent months.

Giroud offers the Arsenal forward line an aerial threat they lack in his absence and while cynics will be quick to suggest scoring a hat-trick against a mediocre Olympiacos side that did not deserve a place in the last-16 of the Champions League does not cement his status as an A-list striker, surely now the time has come to give the guy a break.

Giroud may need to score the goals that guide Arsenal to Premier League title glory or – more improbably – towards an appearance in this season’s Champions League final in Milan, but before the doubters chuckle at that prospect, it would be worth considering where Arsenal might be this season without his considerable input.

Even the aforementioned Mr Morgan was crowing about Giroud, as he offered up this excited tweet: "Giroud, I love you. You gorgeous man," he posted on his account.

Of course, Giroud has his flaws and he misses too many chances to be hailed as a match winner of the very highest calibre, but his record at Arsenal should be viewed in a more favourable light on a night when Arsenal banished their Champions League demons and made it through to the knock-out phase once more.

The lack of quality in a Group F dominated by Bayern Munich gave Arsenal hope of bouncing back from losing three of their first four matches in the group, but this final performance was a job supremely well done by Wenger and his troops.

They may have needed to flick an ignition switch in a season that has threatened to explode into life on several occasions and perhaps this was the victory that will propel them to greater heights as they look to challenge for their Premier League title since 2004.

A fully fit Arsenal squad featuring the magical passing talents of Mesut Ozil, the brilliance of Alexis Sanchez, the driving Jack Wilshere in midfield and the pace of Theo Walcott on the flanks should be good enough to challenge their stuttering rivals in England for the biggest prize of them all.

Arsenal's 5-1 drubbing at the hands of Bayern Munich last month suggests the notion that they are equipped to challenge for the Champions League crown still seems fanciful, but at least their name will be in the mix when the draw of the last-16 is made.

For that, Arsenal should thank Olivier Giroud, their long-standing unsung hero.

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