Olivier Giroud is a man making up for lost time. Six months ago the Chelsea striker was out in the cold and fretting about losing his place in the France squad before Euro 2020. Opportunities to impress Frank Lampard with his unselfish hold-up play had dried up and Giroud, a target for Bordeaux, Internazionale, Lazio and Tottenham, was desperate for a move.
When the January transfer window closed with Giroud still at Chelsea, Lampard promised him a fresh start. Tammy Abraham was struggling with an ankle injury and Michy Batshuayi had disappointed. Giroud, who had made two league starts all season, was back. Scoring on his return to the side against Tottenham in February was a good start, and he was in his element by the time he pitched in with another goal when Chelsea thumped Everton at Stamford Bridge on March 8th, only for coronavirus to bring English football to a halt five days later.
There was more uncertainty for a 33-year-old whose deal was due to expire on June 30th. France should have been playing their second game at the Euros on Saturday but the tournament has been delayed by a year and the world champions may have moved on from Giroud by then – not that he sees it that way after agreeing a one-year contract with Chelsea this month. “Panic is not for me,” he says. “Time is not playing on my side, I’m almost 34, but my body is ready to play a few more years at the best level. We are World Cup champions and we want to do like our brothers from France 98 and win the European championship.”
Giroud has 39 goals from 97 games; there are milestones to hit. He is targeting a century of caps and is third in the list of France goalscorers, two behind Michel Platini, 12 behind Thierry Henry. "It's going to be difficult to reach Thierry Henry's 51," he says. "But you never know."
The former Arsenal forward is used to being written off. Giroud has his critics when he plays for France but he performed the role of non-scoring striker to perfection at the 2018 World Cup, working hard and making space for Antoine Griezmann and Kylian Mbappé. He is a team player and Lampard has seen the worth of Giroud, who can count himself unlucky if he does not start when Chelsea return at Aston Villa on Sunday.
“All through my career I have always been through difficulties,” he says. “The best thing to do is to bounce back. I was close to leaving the club but I didn’t really want to. I needed game-time for the Euros and it’s true I spoke with the gaffer regarding maybe letting me go for another challenge. He said ‘yes’. He understood my situation. He was a player and we always had a great understanding regarding my future.
“When he told me that I was going to have more chances to show, I just trusted him, and I really want to fight for it, like I have done before at Arsenal. My motivation was very high. He gave me the opportunity and I just tried to pay him back. It feels like a new start. I want to win more trophies with Chelsea.”
Lockdown has presented challenges for players. Giroud has seen Chelsea move closer to landing the RB Leipzig forward Timo Werner – "he is going to be a very good signing and more motivation for strikers" is his verdict – and knows this might not have been an ideal time to be a free agent.
“I read in the newspaper that coronavirus influenced my decision. You cannot forget the situation, but when the club wanted to give me another year because I have shown a strong character, I felt that my journey at Chelsea was not over. I would have felt very sad if I had left the club in January.”
Chelsea are rebuilding. Werner is on his way, Hakim Ziyech is due to arrive from Ajax and Bayer Leverkusen's Kai Havertz is another target. But Giroud believes he has much to offer. He bristles when asked whether it will be good for him that teams can use five substitutes, even though he has the second-best scoring record off the bench in Premier League history. "Why, personally?" he says, laughing a little defensively. "I've been the super sub but I want to make the gaffer's choices even more difficult."
Giroud is raring to go, though he admits Chelsea’s players had some fretful discussions about the merits of Project Restart during the pandemic’s peak. “We were not very comfortable to come back because we were in the worst period of the virus. We had a few video calls together and I can say one month and a half ago we didn’t feel very comfortable to come back. But because the Premier League and the PFA gave us all details of the security we will get, the training protocols and what is being done to keep everybody safe, we felt we could come back.”
N’Golo Kanté, Giroud’s France and Chelsea teammate, was reluctant to return at first. “I believe like all the players he had at-risk people in his entourage so that’s why he didn’t feel very comfortable,” Giroud says. “But I respect that. We are very glad to have him back and I think he will definitely be here for the first game. He is looking good.”
The discussion turns to the Black Lives Matter protests and why it is important for white players to speak out against racism. Giroud is asked whether he could take a knee if he scores against Villa. “It’s something I could do. Any kind of support we can do will always make a difference. It’s not enough to say I’m against racism, now you have to fight against it.”
Giroud looks and sounds comfortable. He has been watching the Bundesliga and was surprised by the intensity of the tackling when Bayern Munich beat Borussia Dortmund, though he knows it will be strange to play without supporters.
Games behind closed doors are a must, though, and Chelsea have a job to finish. They are fourth and visit Leicester for an FA Cup quarter-final next Sunday. Giroud trusts they are capable of picking up where they left off.
But has the picture changed? Chelsea were almost granted a free hit at the start of the season. They were under a transfer embargo last summer, had an inexperienced manager who turned to the kids and made no signings in January. Now there is pressure; Champions League qualification is theirs to lose. How will they handle it? "We have a very competitive team, with a good alchemy between the youngsters and experienced players," Giroud says. "We expect new signings because it's been two transfer windows but I have a lot of expectation about this squad."
Time has passed and Abraham is fit again. Giroud has more to prove. “Three and half months later and it is totally different,” he says. “I kept my fitness, running in the park. I will give my best to be back in the team. I’m excited.”