Olivier Giroud had just breathed life into Chelsea’s ill-fated hopes of Champions League qualification and knew where to run. It was May 2018, two managers and an eternity ago to anyone in that camp, and after glancing in the winner against Liverpool he sprinted for the overflow seats behind Antonio Conte’s bench.
David Luiz was his target and the pair embraced with the warmth of teammates who had been through the mill for years, never mind the three months since Giroud had arrived from Arsenal. “I know it’s difficult for him because he is coming back from injury,” Giroud said, referring to half of the story given the defender’s falling-out with Conte that season. “It’s not easy when you see the boys training and you are having treatment. He’s a good friend of mine and that’s it.”
They will meet on opposing sides on Saturday and, while neither the stage nor the occasion of an Arsenal v Chelsea cup final are unfamiliar, both players may reflect on the achievement of being back. Their merits divide opinion but at 33 they have proved to be survivors and it is hardly outlandish to suggest their tussle may shape the outcome at Wembley.
What a turnaround that would be given, in January, Giroud had been prepared to leave Chelsea after starting two Premier League games since August. Eventually he stayed and it was his performance the next time he began a top-flight match, bullying Spurs in a 2-1 win, that elevated him in Frank Lampard’s thoughts. He has scored eight times since and his run of six in seven games is his best in club football since 2015.
Nobody who has worked closely with Giroud is surprised by his propensity to bounce back. When Arsenal began scouting him at Montpellier, the various reports they compiled returned similar traits: his first touch was sound, his left foot excellent, his aerial ability far above the norm for a modern centre-forward. The other, less quantifiable, attribute that arose constantly was “brave”.
Giroud had been a relatively late bloomer and, when David Luiz was making a €25m move to Chelsea from Benfica in January 2011, he was midway through his first season in Ligue 1.
He had started in the second tier with Grenoble and perhaps the Alpine granite rubbed off. Former colleagues at Arsenal bring up an evening in Piraeus, when a two-goal win over Olympiakos was required in December 2015, as the time that toughness radiated above all.
Giroud had started the job with a header but, soon after the interval, he rolled an ankle and the initial message to the bench was his participation might end there but Giroud knew Arsenal needed goals and there was no striker on the bench. “I’ll get back out and give it a go” was the gist of his decision and moments later he ran through while heavily in pain to score the decisive second. He would complete his hat-trick with a penalty.
Interventions such as that came along with remarkable regularity given he was never viewed as the glamour centre-forward Arsenal lacked in the post-Robin van Persie era. The stop-gap perception has lingered at Chelsea, whom he joined to dismay at Arsenal in a bid for more playing time. “He always kept his cool, always stayed professional, always worked hard, and he fought his way back,” said his current teammate Antonio Rüdiger of the times when that remained hard to come by. Now he has helped them to the Champions League spot he could not quite deliver two years previously.
Giroud’s consistency in all departments has been striking and, on that score, a comparison to David Luiz might not immediately sit well. David Luiz and Lampard had what the former called “a different idea of the future”, a notion that reached a head after a disastrous pre-season display against Red Bull Salzburg. But Lampard never doubted his competitiveness, referring this season to his heroic performance with “half a hamstring” in the 2012 Champions League final.
No one would deny he has had a mixed season at Arsenal, his improvement under Mikel Arteta marred by penalty concessions and red cards, including a double whammy at Stamford Bridge in February. If Arteta, who will cushion David Luiz in the security of a defensive three in the final, wants to develop his side’s style with a back four there will surely be no place for the veteran. His contract extension in June received derision but there is a reason Arteta will be happy to keep him around.
David Luiz was a popular figure among graduates from Chelsea’s academy, viewed as a senior player eager to give his time even if that perception was not always matched elsewhere. Those around Arsenal’s setup believe he has increased that level of support since arriving. He has developed particularly close relationships with young centre-backs such as Zech Medley, who has appeared in matchday squads recently, and is understood to have been unstintingly communicative during the difficult weeks since lockdown.
“I wanted him to step up, I wanted him to put all his qualities – his personality and his experience – towards the team and he made a big step forward,” Arteta said in January. There is a feeling he made a conscious effort to do so and that, for now, it mitigates the occasions he goes walkabout on the pitch.
A slip at Wembley would not be easily forgiven, though, and Giroud may remember the assist the defender provided for the winner against Chelsea in the 2017 final. Back then, David Luiz was caught in no man’s land as Aaron Ramsey steamed in behind him.
Giroud, who then opened the floodgates for Chelsea in last year’s Europa League final, should have chances to score his 40th headed goal for an English club against a cringingly erratic backline. Yet anyone who watched David Luiz marshal the same defence to a clean sheet against Manchester City would temper such optimism and perhaps only one thing is certain: when two old warriors ride out so many bumps to take centre stage again, nobody can call it an accident.