Olivier Giroud and Arsene Wenger enjoy famous feat – but bigger questions remain

Olivier Giroud put in a fantastic display for Arsenal, writes Tom Adams, but the real test of the striker and his manager will come in the knockout stage.
In the eternal debate over Olivier Giroud’s ability, the one thing that cannot be questioned, and was in fact reinforced dramatically by events on Wednesday night, is his essential importance to Arsenal and the extent to which the club’s fate is intertwined with his.
Whether this importance is more a reflection of his burgeoning prowess as a striker or of a team which has lowered its talent horizons is the question, and one which remains unanswered on the whole. But while consensus on the bigger matter is elusive, Giroud’s centrality to Arsenal is not hard to divine.
A quite brilliant hat-trick against Olympiacos took Arsenal into the knockout stages of the Champions League for another season. Giroud scored with a fantastic header from an Aaron Ramsey cross, an emphatic finish from a Joel Campbell reverse pass and a penalty following a handball from Omar Elabdellaoui.
One newspaper carried a picture of Giroud on its back page with the headline ‘Greek God’ – something you can imagine the Frenchman, never shy of a smouldering glance, would have enjoyed on Thursday morning. And there was something heroic about Giroud’s and Arsenal’s exploits, achieving the Herculean task of qualifying despite losing their opening two games, away to Dinamo Zagreb and home to Olympiacos.
The way Arsenal have turned around their Champions League campaign mirrors Giroud’s dramatic transformation in the competition this season. The striker was sent off in the 2-1 defeat away to Dinamo which opened the group stage and was missing for the potentially fatal 3-2 home defeat to Olympiacos.
When Giroud’s indiscipline let his team down, Wenger’s questionable team selections also proved self-defeating, a weakened side succumbing in Croatia and David Ospina, bizarrely preferred to Petr Cech for the first two games, committing a big mistake against Olympiacos. Yet from the throes of despair, vindication has been grasped for both men.
As the tweet above demonstrates, only Cristiano Ronaldo has been more potent than Giroud in the Champions League this season. Improbable but true. He scored in both matches against Bayern Munich and then eased Arsenal into the last-16 with his treble in Greece. It was a performance to empower those who maintain Giroud is good enough to sit in the same lineage as Ian Wright, Thierry Henry and Robin van Persie.
Wenger also enjoyed a riposte to his critics. Having artfully set his side up on the counter to inflict a first defeat of the season on Bayern Munich in a famous 2-0 win at home – and putting to one side Bayern’s brutal 5-1 response at Allianz Arena – Arsenal maintained their proud record of always getting out of the group by winning both of their final matches 3-0.
It was quite a feat of escapology, concluding with a surprisingly easy win in Greece. Wenger was beaming as he contemplated another year of knockout competition and in the wake of his moment of personal triumph, one national newspaper even felt sufficiently humbled to issue an apology for their criticism of him.
The praise coming Arsenal and Wenger’s way brought to mind a quote from Spanish coach Juanma Lillo, who told Sid Lowe in Issue One of The Blizzard: “Human beings tend to venerate what finished well, not what was done well. We attack what ended up badly, not what was done badly.”
Concluding their group stage in such a blaze of glory lends Arsenal’s campaign a respectability it does not merit. They should have strolled into second place behind Bayern, not battled with every sinew to sneak in ahead of Olympiacos. Bayern aside, it was a weak group. The result is the same, but looking at the campaign in its totality, Wenger can hardly be delighted. The only one of the world’s top 10 richest clubs who didn’t progress were Manchester United.
Wenger, like Giroud, always does enough to keep the debate about his performance a live one. Arsenal’s form is never so catastrophically bad that they slump down the table as Chelsea have done. Every season they finish in the top four and get through the group of the Champions League. They get results when they need them, just as Giroud keeps getting enough goals to prop up his own case.
The two men oscillate between triumph and disaster regularly, but veer towards the former enough for faith to be maintained. But the true test will come in the last 16, where Arsenal have fallen in the previous five seasons.
Giroud has played in three of those campaigns, scoring in two of the six matches. But the abiding memory for the striker was the first leg againstMonaco last season when Wenger had to take him off after missing a spate of good chances.
A 3-0 win against Olympiacos was a famous European night for Arsenal to savour and a step in the right direction, but Wenger and Giroud have not emphatically answered the critics and done enough to end those perennial debates just yet.

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