France's Oliver Giroud enjoys proving his detractors wrong
By John Irish
MARSEILLE, France (Reuters) - When Oliver Giroud was languishing on the bench at his local club Grenoble in 2006 there was little to suggest he would lead the line for his country against Germany in a European Championship semi-final 10 years later.
"My coach told me this: You don't have the level to play in the second division, let alone the first division," Giroud has said. "They didn't play to my strengths and I wasn't given the confidence. It really hurt."
The comment was, arguably, what made Giroud into the player he is today. With his prospects diminished he opted to take a step down, moving on loan to third division club Istres. Fourteen goals in 33 games earned him a move to Tours back in the second division.
He has not looked back since. His club statistics since 2008, be it at Tours, Montpellier - where he won the French first division title and ended as the league's top goalscorer in 2011-2012 - or Arsenal, would be the envy of many forwards.
His goal-to-game ratio is just under one in every two and he has emulated that for France. Sunday's two goals in the quarter-final against Iceland at Euro 2016 took his tally to 20 in 53 appearances, including nine in his last 10 starts. When Giroud begins, France win 70 percent of games compared to less than half when he does not.
Despite the statistics some languid displays and a perceived lack of cutting edge have contributed to him never quite being able to convince at club or international level.
At Arsenal, pundits and fans repeatedly call for his manager Arsene Wenger to replace him. A 15-game goal drought during this season did not help his cause even if he ended with 24 club goals, his best-ever yearly return.
"I think Olivier Giroud does well enough but can he win the title for Arsenal? I don't think so. Arsenal need a world-class striker to regain the title," France's record goalscorer Thierry Henry said.
Barely a month ago Giroud was jeered by France fans even though he had scored against Cameroon. Observers urged coach Didier Deschamps to bring back the banned Karim Benzema, whom most international teams would be delighted to have in their starting 11.
Proving his detractors wrong is exactly what the 29-year-old Giroud thrives on. The punches come but every time he gets right back up.
"Be it at Arsenal or France, he has always been heckled, but he has never let his head drop," said centre back Laurent Koscielny, who is close friends with Giroud having played alongside him at Tours and now Arsenal.
"He is best when he is facing difficulties. He's somebody that is mentally very tough."
That strength is coupled with technical ability, a team ethos and an old-fashioned rough-and-tumble centre forward attitude that in many ways has disappeared from the modern game, making Giroud an unusual figure.
His deft touches bring more nimble players into the game. At Arsenal, German playmaker Mesut Ozil is the main beneficiary.
Deschamps has learnt from that. In the 2014 World Cup quarter-final defeat to Germany, he opted for the more talented, but less self-sacrificing Benzema despite having played Giroud as the main focal point in earlier games. It backfired with France proving toothless.
With Giroud now unquestionably the main striker, Deschamps has been able to develop the forward's burgeoning partnership with Antoine Griezmann who, like Ozil at Arsenal, plays off their collective strengths.
If Giroud can score against Germany on Thursday, as he has done in two previous matches against the world champions, and help the hosts through to a third home final, then he may finally silence the critics.
(Editing by Clare Fallon)