The little twists of fate are not lost on Olivier Giroud as he prepares for Baku and an end-of-season reunion with his former club.
Giroud was forced from Arsenal at a time when Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang arrived and overloaded the numbers competing for the one place up front in Arsene Wenger’s team.
“I was going to the boss and telling him we can change,” he said. “I would say, ‘We can put two strikers up front’, but Mesut Ozil used to play No 10, like a second striker, and I was OK with that.”
Giroud decided it was best to move on and Chelsea paid £18million. Eighteen months later, he is Maurizio Sarri’s single striker, trusted to lead the line in the Europa League if rarely in the Premier League, where Gonzalo Higuain has been preferred.
The Frenchman has been prolific in Europe, with 10 goals and three assists, making him the top striker in the competition ahead of Eintracht Frankfurt’s Luka Jovic. Eintracht are out, beaten on penalties by Chelsea in the semi-finals and Jovic, who is closing in on a £52.4m move to Real Madrid, can score and assist no more.
Giroud still has one to play, the big one against Arsenal, his former club who are now managed by Unai Emery and have been propelled to the final in Baku by seven goals against Valencia from the £100m twin strike force of Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette.
“It seems things are different,” smiled Giroud. “Sometimes they play two up front. When I was there it never happened.”
The prospect of duelling for a trophy with Arsenal, where he spent five and a half years, is sweet for the 32-year-old.
“I always like playing against my old teams,” said Giroud. “It’s going to be tough, and it could be painful if it’s not going the right way, but you have to put the feelings and memories aside. I enjoyed the years I spent there. It has been a big part of my career, my first club in England and it will always be special, but now I feel my blood is blue. The same as the national team, blue suits me well.”
“I settled in quickly. I felt like part of the family straight away. I knew a few of the players and I’m a sociable person, I always try to communicate. It wasn’t difficult to integrate. I always see it as a new challenge. I couldn’t have hoped for it to be better. And now I want to win my second trophy with Chelsea. To finish as top scorer and help my team. Our target is to win a trophy every season and this is the last chance.”
This, he believes, is where you find the key cultural difference between the two London rivals, cast at opposite ends of football’s identity spectrum since the turn of the century. One obsessed with winning and the other obsessed with beautiful football, although the lines have become blurred by the end of the Wenger era and Sarri’s arrival at Stamford Bridge.
“The main difference is Arsenal always tried to give the chances to the young players,” said Giroud. “It felt like more players formed at the club could have the opportunity to play. Maybe you would get more time at Arsenal. They would be more patient. At Chelsea you have to be ready quickly because in terms of trophies it has been the best club in England for the last 10 years.”
“You don’t have time at Chelsea and when you are young it is quite difficult to find your place. You can see we have a very good academy producing very good players and a few of them are in the first team and that is a good example for the future generation. I don’t want to kill the dreams of these young Chelsea players. They are very talented, but it makes sense because Chelsea invest more in every transfer window and they buy more top players in the world who are more experienced.”
“I am just being honest. People who know football and the Premier League and these two clubs, they know Arsene Wenger could not spend too much money. It was the philosophy of the club and because of that — or thanks to that — he would give the opportunity to young players.”
Giroud won’t say which method he prefers but he is thriving in Chelsea’s demanding environment. Within six months of his transfer, he won the FA Cup, which he won three times at Arsenal, and kept Lacazette out of the team as France won the World Cup. Having returned from last week’s trip to the United States to play in the Final Whistle on Hate game, he is finalising contract talks.
His original deal is about to expire but Chelsea want to exercise their option for one more year and, with Higuain set to be sent back to Juventus after the Europa League final, Giroud has been convinced to stay.
“I feel very happy at the club,” said Giroud. “Maybe I need a bit more game-time but I won’t give up. That’s my mentality. That’s how I’m made. It’s not sorted yet but we are talking about another year.”