Football: Giroud among the best strikers in Europe, says Arsene Wenger

Arsenal's Olivier Giroud applauds the supporters during the English Premier League football match between Aston Villa and Arsenal.
Arsenal's Olivier Giroud applauds the supporters during the English Premier League football match between Aston Villa and Arsenal. PHOTO: EPA

LONDON (THE GUARDIAN) The problem with praise is that it can lead to pressure and the problem with pressure is that it can lead to a player going into his shell, especially on the type of day it was at Villa Park on Sunday . Cold and wet, damp and a little dark. An English winter at its most wintery.

Not pleasant, then, and one could only wonder how Olivier Giroud felt about the conditions as he arrived here some 48 hours after Arsene Wenger had described him as being "among the best strikers in Europe".

A bold claim that raised eyebrows and placed Arsenal's centre-forward somewhat at the centre of proceedings. That is a place where the Frenchman has not always thrived, where the pressure has indeed been too much. But that could not be the case here, not after what his manager had said. In the gloom, Giroud simply had to shine.

In fairness that is what he had done by scoring a vital Champions League hat-trick against Olympiakos last Wednesday, which in turn led to Wenger's praise of his fellow Frenchman.

And while Giroud's display here was not as emphatic as the one he delivered in Athens , there was still a rising to the occasion, an all-round contribution punctuated by Giroud's 50th Premier League goal for Arsenal since he joined them three years ago.

The 29-year-old has become only the seventh player to reach that landmark in the Premier League and the third fastest to do so, after Thierry Henry and Ian Wright. And while Giroud may never match their statuses as bona fide Arsenal legends, it says something that in goalscoring terms he is among such exalted company.

His half-century goal came early and in straightforward fashion - an eighth-minute penalty following Alan Hutton's clumsy challenge on Theo Walcott and after the referee, Kevin Friend, had initially not deemed it a foul. A change of mind gave Giroud the chance to give Arsenal the lead and he steered a left-foot shot past Brad Guzan as the Aston Villa goalkeeper dived the other way.

It was Giroud's 11th goal in his last 13 appearances and his 27th this calender year. Little wonder Wenger described the player as being "at the top of his game" as he lavished more praise on him afterwards.

"He is questioned but finally the numbers get people to realise he is a good player," said the Arsenal manager. "I think he has improved technically, his link play is better and when we have option to go for long balls he's an interesting option."

Giroud was certainly an outlet here, regularly launching himself into the air in order to win as many long balls as possible, and while he occasionally came off second best in his battles with Joleon Lescott, his presence was an undoubted nuisance for the Villa defender.

Others in claret and blue were also put under pressure by Giroud as he looked to regain possession for his team, such as in the 17th minute when he forced Jores Okore into playing a hurried pass, and the 58th minute when he caused Idrissa Gueye to give away the ball.

And then there was Giroud's willingness to drop deep in order to start attacks, most notably when his quick pass to Mesut Oezil from near the halfway line led to Aaron Ramsey scoring Arsenal's second goal on the back of a delightful team breakaway.

It would be foolish to get too carried away by Giroud's display against opponents who have now gone 15 league matches without winning and kept only one clean sheet in their last 11 games in all competitions.

There was nothing here to put Giroud in the same bracket as Sergio Aguero, Robert Lewandowski and Karim Benzema, which Wenger did when praising him among Europe's best forwards last week. Practically every Arsenal fan would swap Giroud for either of the first two and, pre-sex tape scandal , probably the latter as well.

It should also not be forgotten just how much Giroud can infuriate, seen most starkly during Arsenal's Champions League defeat to Monaco at the Emirates Stadium in February when he failed to convert a host of clear-cut chances, leading to home spectators cheering his substitution.

There are those matches but there are also others like the one here, and in that crucial victory against Olympiakos, when Giroud shows his worth to Arsenal as a classic centre-forward, one of the few left at the highest echelons of European football and who since arriving from Montpellier in 2012 has done that most of important of things for a goalscorer - score goals.

As he celebrated with the rest of his team-mates in front of the travelling supporters located in one corner of the Doug Ellis stand, joy taken from a victory that sent Arsenal to the top of the table, it was not difficult to feel pleased for Giroud.

Not the best, probably not even among the best, but very good in his own way.