Olivier Giroud seems destined to divide opinion but he showed his value to France again in their 1-0 win over Peru.
There was a line from Didier Deschamps in the press conference before his side's game against Peru that appeared to hint that he had understood his error. "It is when he is not there that we realise just how useful he can be," said the France coach when speaking about Giroud. Restored to the team, the Chelsea striker soon made his presence felt.
It was Giroud's deflected shot that looped into the path of Kylian Mbappe for France's opening goal as they secured the 1-0 win that ensures their place in the knockout stages. But even before then, he had given enough glimpses of just how effective he can be at bringing others into the game to show that his omission against Australia was a mistake.
There was one gorgeous flick towards the onrushing Mbappe early on that his team-mate could not quite collect. Soon after there was another firm header back to Antoine Griezmann that barely required the Atletico Madrid forward to break stride before crashing a first-time effort towards goal that was well saved by Peru keeper Pedro Gallese.
Aside from the opportunities that he helped to create, there was the hold-up play and the defensive work. One moment he was heading away a corner inside his own box, the next he was tracking back to dispossess Yoshimar Yotun near the centre circle. This is what former France forward Jean-Pierre Papin calls the "invisible" work that Giroud's critics can miss.
11 – Turns his marker and the ball ricochets through to Griezmann who shoots wide
15 – Flicks the ball cleverly into the path of the onrushing Mbappe who is crowded out
16 – Heads the ball down perfectly for Griezmann whose first-time shot is well saved
34 – GOAL! Good run and his deflected shot loops into the path of Mbappe for a tap-in
38 – Tracks back brilliantly to dispossess Yotun but is adjudged to have fouled his man
63 – Picks out Mbappe well at the back post but his team-mate’s cross-shot is blocked
82 – Giroud nods the ball down to Pogba but the midfielder drags his shot just wide
Given the options at his disposal, Deschamps could be forgiven for being unsure of his best line-up - he went with the pace of Ousmane Dembele as France stuttered to a 2-1 win in their opener against Australia. But having captained his country to World Cup glory in 1998, he should be well aware of the merits of an underappreciated striker.
Stephane Guivarc'h, the forward who led the line for France in their World Cup final win over Brazil, did not score a goal in that tournament 20 years ago. But his presence played its part in the team's success, occupying defenders, harrying opponents and creating space for others. The coach Aime Jacquet never lost sight of that and nor did his team-mates.
"The ridicule that was heaped on him afterwards must rank as one of the most inane manifestations of football idiocy ever," wrote French writer Philippe Auclair in his biography of Thierry Henry. "Ask Blanc, Deschamps, Thuram about Guivarc'h's contribution to their triumph. They will all praise his selfless sacrifice and their manager's far-sightedness."
Guivarc'h himself continues to defend his role in the win. "Those who say that France played without a centre-forward know nothing about football," he said in a recent interview with Le Parisien. He sees similarities with Giroud. "I had this same role as the focal point," he added. "Like him, I was able to be the pivot with my back to goal, holding the ball up."
Setting up others
Olivier Giroud created three chances against Peru - the most by any player on the pitch.
There is a certain irony in the fact that Christophe Dugarry, the gifted forward who saw Guivarc'h preferred to him that night in Paris, was among those to criticise Giroud on the eve of this World Cup. "With Giroud in the France team, Les Bleus will not win the World Cup," he declared. Papin reprimanded him for these "nasty" words.
Dugarry later apologised but he is not alone in his view. It is one that dogged the striker for much of his career at Arsenal despite plenty of evidence to the contrary. Remarkably, only Sergio Aguero, Harry Kane and Mohamed Salah have scored more than 20 goals over the past three Premier League seasons at a superior strike rate to Giroud.
While Guivarc'h's goalscoring record for his country was disappointing, that charge cannot be levelled at his modern-day equivalent. Giroud has delivered in front of goal. Only Henry, Michel Platini and David Trezeguet have found the net more times for France. Giroud's strike rate is nearly identical to that of Henry's. He scores goals and he makes others better.
Still the idea persists that to select Giroud is an admission of defeat - an acknowledgement that a team is settling - and there can be no denying that France's performance against Peru was hardly that of World Cup winners elect. There are problems in this team, a lack of width at full-backs and not enough creativity in midfield. Even the best formation is not obvious.
As a result, the temptation is to look elsewhere in search of something more. Deschamps was drawn to Dembele and the promise of pace in abundance. But the lesson of history is that this is a team sport and finding the right blend of characteristics is the key to success. Including those of Giroud. France's World Cup winning captain should know that by now.
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