It was the news that Sir Alex Ferguson was dreading – this summer’s principal transfer target, Olimpique Lyonnais’ Karim Benzema, has joined the Real Madrid gravy-train on a six-year contract. The striker, 21, has been the subject of a flurry of negotiations over the past 48 hours, with both United and Madrid seemingly making offers over £30 million for the French international. However, Benzema’s desire to join Real ahead of United, in addition to an extra £5 million in add-on fees that the Spanish club have offered, won the day.
The news means that United will now have to seek alternate striking options or trust in youth for the coming season after the departures of Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez. But those alternatives are thin on the ground, with top class strikers a rare commodity outside of the major European clubs.
While David Villa and Samuel Eto’o were seemingly available at the start of the summer, neither is a realistic transfer option for United now. Villa is likely to stay at Valencia for a further season, or move to Barcelona who are desperate to secure his signature, if he can force a transfer. Eto’o, meanwhile, is currently playing Barcelona off against Manchester City in one of the seedier transfers of the summer.
In a transfer saga that mirrors that of Ronaldinho’s from Paris Saint German to Barcelona in 2003, it appears United have been outbid for one of the world’s leading young attacking players. United’s board may have forced Real to pay over £30 million up front, with a further £5 million in payments dependent on clauses, but that will be no consolation to Fergie. This came after the Reds had offered a similar sum, without clauses, on Tuesday. Meanwhile, United was apparently in negotiations with Benzema himself. But it seems the Spanish club stole a march on on David Gill’s negotiation team, with Benzema returning from holiday this week to tell Lyon president Jean-Michel Aulas that he wanted a move to Los Meregues.
Ferguson could now switch his attentions to Real Madrid’s unwanted Dutch forward Jan Klaas Huntelaar. Although it seems unlikely that United’s manager will opt for the Madrid outcast, having failed to follow up his reported interest 12 months ago. Elsewhere United are said to be interested in Atlético Madrid’s Sergio Aguero, but a £45 million fee being demanded by his club, plus £150,000 per week net required by the player make the transfer unlikely. The club has also been linked with AS Roma’s underwhelming Mirko Vucinic, who would add very little extra quality to Ferguson’s attacking options.
In keeping with United’s youthful approach to transfer strategy, the club could find an alternative in Wolfsburg’s 23 year-old Bosnian striker Edin Džeko, who has been the subject of intense interest from AC Milan. His club, however, appear reluctant to release him. Or perhaps Fergie could bid for Genoa’s Italian under-21 international Robert Acquafresca, who performed well at the recent European Championships. Newspaper reports have also linked United with Toulouse’s 24 year-old forward André-Pierre Gignac, who outscored Benzema this season in Ligue 1?
In truth though, with Ronaldo and Tevez gone, and his leading striking choice having joined the Madrid revolution, Ferguson’s options have significantly reduced. In the end, the Scot may now opt to place faith in youth, and offer Danny Welbeck and Federico Macheda more game time next season while strengthening other areas of the squad. Either way, Ferguson is going to have to replace 41 goals next season if United are to maintain their pre-eminent position in the face of high-spending opponents.