Karim Benzema’s absence from the European Championship could prove to be good news for France — and particularly for Olivier Giroud.
Often contested because of his erratic performances for club and country, Arsenal striker Giroud is expected to lead France’s attack in Friday’s Euro 2016 opener against Romania.
Giroud does not have the same technical ability as Benzema, who recently won the Champions League for the second time with Real Madrid.
But with Giroud, France is forced to play with greater urgency and more directly, getting the ball up to him quicker for him to hold it up and lay it off to the wings.
“His role is like a pivot,” France coach Didier Deschamps said. “I’ve never doubted him and he knows I believe in him.”
France has young wingers of tremendous speed and technique in Manchester United’s Anthony Martial and Bayern Munich’s Kingsley Coman, and a proven crosser of the ball in West Ham’s Dimitri Payet.
This gives Giroud options when he receives the ball and, because of Giroud’s excellent heading ability, gives Payet a target man on crosses, free kicks and corners.
It means France will play a different way than when Benzema led the line at the 2014 World Cup — scoring three goals — and at Euro 2012, where he failed to score.
In April, it was announced that Benzema would not play at Euro 2016 after his national federation ruled against his return. He is facing preliminary charges of conspiracy to blackmail, relating to an extortion scam over a sex tape involving France teammate Mathieu Valbuena.
Benzema was left out in a joint decision by Deschamps and French Football Federation president Noel Le Graet over concern about what his inclusion might do for team spirit. It would also have drawn huge media attention, with some politicians demanding that he should not play.
But the timing could not be better for Giroud, who has scored seven goals in his past seven games for France and ended the domestic season with a hat trick against Aston Villa.
It has been some turnaround for Giroud, who lost his way after netting twice away to Liverpool in mid-January. His confidence deserted him after that and his place in Arsenal’s attack went to Theo Walcott and Danny Welbeck.
“It was a difficult time for Olivier because he was playing less and scoring less,” Deschamps said. “But I know what he can bring to the team, and I won’t ask him to play a different style.”
With his sometimes effortless technique, Benzema is easier on the eye, has a better shot and a better creative reading of the game. But he also showed at the 2014 World Cup that he could be self-indulgent, sulking when played out of position on the wing, drifting around and dropping deep when it suited him and sometimes unbalancing the team.
Taller and more muscular than Benzema, but with less pace and skill, Giroud is not to everyone’s liking — not least the hard-to-please French fans.
Remarkably, Giroud was jeered when he came off against Cameroon midway through the second half on May 30, despite scoring the first goal in a 3-2 win with a cleanly-struck volley.
The next day’s edition of sports daily L’Equipe featured a photo of Giroud, standing with hands on hips during that match, under the headline “Le Mal Aime” (Unloved).
Giroud scored twice in the next match, a 3-0 win against Scotland, and finally the fans applauded him off the pitch.
On Friday, he has a chance to get 80,000 fans at Stade de France and the rest of the nation on his side if he does well against Romania.