Funny old game, football. But an even stranger profession. Two weeks after thrashing Ludogorets 6-0 in London, Arsenal found itself 2-0 down within 15 minutes against the same opponent in Razgrad. And for Olivier Giroud, the scoreline was not even the even the weirdest part.
The Arsenal striker had just been visited by a ghost of seasons past. More than seven years have passed since he joined together with a Romanian striker named Claudiu Keseru to fire tiny Tours FC to the brink of promotion to Ligue 1. The partnership was broken up at the end of the campaign, and they never played together again. But now, here was Keseru, scoring Ludogorets’ second goal.
Giroud had greeted his old teammate warmly before the match, sharing a hug beside the pitch. "He’s a good player," warned the Frenchman at Arsenal’s pre-game press conference. "But a good guy as well."
Keseru responded with corresponding affection on Instagram, describing Giroud as "one of my best friends in French football."
To observe how their careers have diverged over the past seven years, you might presume that there was always a wide gulf between their respective talents. Tours, for Giroud, was a launchpad – his 36 goals in two seasons earning him a move to Ligue 1’s Montpellier, from where he joined Arsenal in 2012.
Keseru, by contrast, continued to bounce around with different clubs in Ligue 2 right up until 2013 – when he finally got back to the French top-flight (he had been there before, briefly, with Nantes) by signing for Bastia. He lasted one season, in which he scored a single goal, before moving on to Steaua Bucuresti in Romania, Al-Gharafa in Qatar and finally Ludogorets.
And yet, the reality is that Giroud’s own career was on thin ice before he joined Tours in 2008. He had spent the previous season playing in the fourth tier, at Istres, after his coach at Grenoble – Mecha Bazdarevic – told him in that he would never even make the grade in Ligue 2.
It was only with the help of Tours manager Daniel Sanchez that Giroud learned to refine his game. "He had a tendency to wander all over the place, left and right," Sanchez explained some years later. "He was everywhere and nowhere at the same time … He needed to be much more present in the penalty area – I wanted him to have that presence in front of goal."
Perhaps Keseru himself helped Giroud to understand what was required. The Romanian was a true striker, someone who liked to play off the shoulder of a centre-back and attack the six-yard box, even if also unselfish enough to lay on a few goals for his teammates as well.
But then came the sliding doors moment. Keseru, who was at Tours on a loan from Nantes, blew out his cruciate ligament during a game against Guingamp in April 2009 – on his mother’s birthday, no less. He had scored seven goals in 12 league appearances to that point, and was dovetailing beautifully with Giroud.
Unable to justify splashing what little cash they had on an injured player, Tours allowed Keseru’s deal to expire. For the player’s career, it was a critical blow. Keseru had been happy at Tours, noting in interviews how the players would hang out and go to the cinema together in their days off. He never achieved the same feeling back at Nantes.
Not that he appears to feel any bitterness about how the whole story went down. Keseru speaks only fondly of his time in French football, calling it "the place where I grew up, where I developed as both a human being and a footballer." He took great delight in the opportunity to catch up with Giroud and another former teammate Dimitri Payet, when Romania took on France at Euro 2016.
And he seems to be enjoying his football at Ludogorets just fine. Even before his strike against Arsenal, he had scored seven times in his previous three games.
Giroud himself, though, had arrived in similarly buoyant mood. He scored two goals with as many touches when he returned from injury against Sunderland at the weekend. He duly played his part in Arsenal’s inevitable comeback at Ludogorets; after Granit Xhaka pulled one goal back, Giroud headed home an equaliser on the cusp of half-time.
It was a simple goal, but one that contained a little hint of those lessons he learned under Sanchez at Tours. Giroud is rarely shy about making his presence felt in the penalty box nowadays, and was decisive with in attacking Aaron Ramsey’s cross from the right. He timed his run perfectly to beat goalkeeper Milan Borjan to the ball and head home.
For a long time, it appeared that the game would end 2-2 – allowing Keseru and Giroud to share the plaudits just like they used to do as teammates. Instead, Mesut Ozil sealed victory for Arsenal with a glorious piece of skill, chipping Borjan before eluding two desperate challenges to slot home.
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There are some differences, after all, between the Champions League and Ligue 2. But even in defeat, Keseru had proven himself worthy to share this stage with his old buddy Giroud.
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