Giroud determined to regain Arsenal starting place as Wenger targets top spot
Olivier Giroud has become accustomed to having his worth as Arsenal's main striker doubted externally since arriving as Robin van Persie's replacement in 2012, but never previously has the internal questioning also been so intense.
The £17m summer arrival of Lucas Perez was one additional obstacle but, even with Danny Welbeck also due back at Christmas, the most significant change has been the redeployment this season of Alexis Sanchez as a centre-forward.
A combination of a lack of match fitness since Euro 2016 and then a toe injury has limited Giroud's availability and, in his absence, Sanchez has already scored eight goals in 13 games. Sanchez now appears to be 'Plan A' in manager Arsene Wenger's mind.
Ludogorets away, however, is the type of fixture when 'Plan B' might well come into play, and the expectation is that Giroud will start his first Arsenal game of the season.
Giroud's two late goals off the bench in Saturday's 4-1 win against Sunderland were a reminder of his contrasting qualities to Sanchez, and his resilience has never been in doubt.
"My turn will come," said Giroud last night. "I'm not questioning myself too much about my place. I just need to play more and, with training, show I'm in good form. Against Sunderland I tried to raise the team and, fortunately, I finished well their work. I feel good."
Giroud believes that he could also play in tandem with Sanchez.
"In every big club, you have a lot of good strikers with different qualities," he said. "We can play together; we can play up front, or on our own. We have a very good team cohesion. But I'm happy as long as we win."
It should also not be forgotten that Giroud has been Arsenal's leading scorer in two of the past three seasons. The wider question for Wenger will be whether he now simply moves Sanchez back to the left or sticks with what has largely worked this season and retains him though the middle.
There will also be a strong temptation to rest certain key players in Bulgaria, including Sanchez, Mesut Ozil, Francis Coquelin and Laurent Koscielny ahead of Sunday's north London derby against Tottenham.
Santi Cazorla, Nacho Monreal and Theo Walcott also remain sidelined, while a "small" injury on Monday at the end of training meant that Hector Bellerin stayed in London to present Carl Jenkinson with a chance of a first Champions League appearance since December 2013.
The importance of winning tonight was certainly underlined by Wenger. Qualification to the last 16 of the Champions League for the 17th consecutive season is within grasp should Arsenal beat Ludogorets and Paris St Germain win against Basle, but the priority is to top Group A.
In four of the last six seasons, Arsenal have been eliminated either by Barcelona or Bayern Munich at this stage.
"We have a good opportunity if we win," said Wenger. "It is an advantage to finish top because you play the second game in the last 16 at home, so you know exactly what you have to achieve. You have the support. If it goes to extra-time or penalties, you play at home.
"We have paid the price many times when we've finished second so we think it's important."
Victory would also mark a welcome start to a series of matches in November which, after regularly losing momentum previously at this stage of the season, will provide a clear indication of Arsenal's likely staying power. As well as Tottenham on Sunday, Arsenal face PSG, Manchester United and Bournemouth ahead of a League Cup quarter-final against Southampton.
"We have very important games in front of us," said Wenger. "We have to keep a good balance between vigilance and confidence.
"The most important thing is not to live in the past. You have to live with the team you have at the moment. Our destiny lies in the mind of the players: how strongly they are focused, how hungry they are in every single game, starting now." (© Daily Telegraph, London)