Saturday 10th December, 7pm
England @ 15/8
France @ 6/4
Draw @ 23/10
The preamble to the box office World Cup quarter-final between England and France has been dominated by talk of one player: Kylian Mbappé.
The 23-year-old PSG hitman looked to be at the peak of his powers as he helped to surgically dismantle Poland the 2ndround. And, in the process, reach the milestone of 250 career goals – in no less than 150 fewer games than Cristiano Ronaldo. Pace and power, finesse and finishing – everything about him elicits an almost cartoonish eye-popping reaction.
There is bullish talk that Gareth Southgate has developed a cunning plan to curtail the Parisian’s irrepressible imperium. However, I can’t help but visualise the reality being similar to Wile E. Coyote’s plans to stop Road Runner:
A giggling Southgate unties a grand piano that has been hanging high-up in the rafters of the Al Khor stadium, directly above where the French #10 is standing. But, as a result of Harry Maguire blindly stumbling into the back of him, the descending Bösendorfer just misses the striker and lands on top of a disgruntled, exhausted, spiral-eyed Kyle Walker instead.
‘Meep meep,’ says Mbappé calmly observing the surrounding carnage, before jogging into the England box and rifling his fourth goal of the evening into the roof of the net.
Obviously Didier Deschamps will hope all the magnetic attention his galactic forward is likely to receive results in relative anonymity for his more traditional #9, Olivier Giroud – a player whose career trajectory is also slightly bewildering, though in a very different way…
Giroud was never a youth prodigy – the kind to quickly find themselves developing their craft in the academies of European football’s elite establishments. Instead, he slowly worked his way up through the lower leagues – starting at his hometown club, Grenoble, before eventually arriving on the south coast to play for Ligue 1 outfit Montpellier.
Landing at Arsenal in 2012, soon to turn 26, the Frenchman would go on to score 105 goals in 5 ½ seasons. He reached 100 club goals in an ever-so-slightly smaller number of matches than Robin van Persie. And his games-to-goals ratio (0.42) was significantly better than club legend, Dennis Bergkamp (0.28), who was in North London for a similar length of time.
So why is Giroud not considered a Gunners hero? Where was his lavish testimonial? Why on earth was he sold mid-season? And to a local rival too?
Despite being infrequently used at Chelsea, Giroud continued to average a goal every other game – a feat he has maintained in Serie A. And in Qatar, his Group D brace against Australia elevated him above Thierry Henry to become France’s all-time top goal-scorer.
Has sporting excellence ever been so unheralded? Whatever the reason, Giroud does not seem to connect with the masses in the way other players do.
Does he come across as being too clever? Too clean cut? Too – to quote fashion icon Derek Zoolander – really, really, really, ridiculously good-looking?
Perhaps he simply wears too much aftershave? Which may explain why he has settled well in Milan. Either way, the importance of a decent, fully-functioning #9 should never be undervalued – a fact that Spain really ought to have figured-out by now…
At the age of 36, Giroud seems content to make history in the shadow of Mbappé, but one hopes Southgate has sketched-out a little plan to deal with him as well.
But what kind of plans will Deschamps have made for England? For an attack line that doesn’t revolve around a single Sun King; but is a fast and malleable, multi-pronged weapon that can be deployed from any number of directions?
And has everyone forgotten about the England #9 – the Chingford Pelé, Harry Kane? On the cusp of breaking the Three Lions’ all-time goal-scoring record, the England captain’s low-key tournament has thus far been characterised by exquisite assists. But do trappings of greatness await on his horizon too?
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