Considering that it was only bottom of the table Arles Avignon who scored fewer goals than Montpellier in Ligue 1 last year, and that the club sold their star defender Emir Spahic in the summer, seasoned French football observers could have been forgiven for imagining that the south coast side from Herault would struggle this year.

But Olivier Giroud ensured that Montpellier entered 2012 second in the table, having only surrendered the Ligue 1 leadership in the last round of fixtures. No-one has scored more than La Paillade, including big spending Paris Saint-Germain. And none of PSG’s prolific forwards, even Kevin Gameiro, have found the back of the net as many times as Giroud. It is therefore little surprise that scouts are beating a path to the south coast, with English Premier League duo Arsenal and Newcastle consistently having the striker watched.

The 25-year-old has struck 13 goals so far, but there was no sign of his form to come at the start of the season. Last year Giroud only managed 12, though in fairness, the striker had only just arrived from Tours. He is, however, an unlikely goalscoring hero in Ligue 1, a late starter and one who almost did not make the grade as a professional.

Having failed to take his chance at the legendary Clairefontaine Academy as a youngster, admitting that he was too timid for the “jungle” that was the world of football, Giroud’s career began at Grenoble. The signs of his promise, competing in the same France Under-16 team as Yoann Gourcuff, Yohan Cabaye and Sylvain Marveaux, were clear. But the goal-getter plied his trade in the lower ranks until 2008, when he was signed by Tours, giving him his first taste of professional football. Just three years later, Giroud dipped his toe into the water of international football against the United States.

During his time with Grenoble though, Giroud struck just twice, and struggled to win over his then-coach Mehmed Bazdarevic. That led to a switch to south coast side Istres, with which he improved, grabbing 14 goals, but hardly setting the world alight. It would take one match for the true Giroud to be uncovered however, and the Chambery-native’s talent could not stay hidden for long.

That game came in January 2009, with four goals against SS Jean D’Arc in the last 32 of the French Cup; something has clicked inside Giroud. Remarkably, he repeated the feat against Arles at the start of the following season and those who knew the ability that lay within his soft boots quickly tuned into events at Istres. After scoring 21 goals in the 2008/09 campaign to finish as Ligue 2 top scorer, the 6”3 striker won a move to Montpellier, turning down Scottish giants Celtic in the process

Giroud got off to a flying start at the Stade de la Mosson when he scored in the qualifying round of the Europa League; Montpellier however lost to Hungarian side Gyori on penalties, meaning the new arrival’s heroics were to no avail.

While the 25-year-old was hardly prolific last season, compared to the rest of his team-mates, he was on fire. Without Giroud Montpellier could have been relegated despite surging out of the Ligue 1 blocks; they eventually finished fourteenth. With just 32 goals scored, the club Colombian legend Carlos Valderrama once called home struck less than Monaco and Le Mans, two sides now languishing at the bottom of Ligue 2.

This season though Giroud has taken off – dragging Montpellier with him -, scoring the winning goal against Lille at the home of the champions in August, the only match Rudi Garcia’s men have lost all season. Montpellier have stayed in the top two ever since and have their centre forward to thank for much of their good form.

Strong, intelligent and with the pace and movement to play up front as a lone man or with a partner, Giroud is the archetypal modern centre forward. Equally at home filling the role of target-man in a 4-5-1, the sticking point the team look to hit and then bring others into play, or as the lethal finisher to supply in a 4-4-2 or 4-3-3. It is notable that all but one of Giroud’s goals this season have come from inside the area.

It is no surprise that France coach Laurent Blanc has eyed the Montpellier man up as he looks to find an alternative to Karim Benzema to lead the line ahead of the creative talents of Gourcuff, Samir Nasri and Franck Ribery. Three years ago Giroud did not have the faith of his manager at Grenoble, but just under a month ago the striker had the last laugh, scoring a hat-trick at Sochaux, the club Bazdarevic now coaches, a result which took Montpellier to the top of the table. Thanks to this form, Giroud is fighting with Loic Remy for a place in the national team.

His coach at La Paillade, Rene Girard, is convinced the forward should travel to the European Championships in Poland and the Ukraine, stating his belief that Giroud is now of the level required for such a competition.

"He has improved as a target-man and can now hold the ball up better for the benefit of the team,” commented the Montpellier boss, before bringing his charge back to earth by reminding him of work still to do. “He should be able to score more with his head, though, and he shouldn’t worry about messing up his hair." 

Giroud has only himself to blame for his reputation for vanity, as the striker revealed earlier this year that he takes his time over his hair and how he looks in the dressing room.  

Yet Girard makes an important point, and that is that “the beautiful kid”  as he has come to be known, should score uglier goals. And with his height, Giroud should be causing defenders problems – he has the physicality and technique to get the better of the likes of John Terry when England face France next summer.

Before then though, there is the little matter of the French title race which Montpellier have gatecrashed. Lille, Paris Saint-Germain, Marseille and Lyon were meant to battle for the top three Champions League spots in Ligue 1 this season. Yet, if Giroud keeps up his form, there will be two very big teams missing out on Europe’s elite competition next year. Giroud might mess up his hair for that.