€94m to spend, no-one to buy?

REAL MADRID last night brought their galactic summer spending to almost €200m with an agreement in principle to pay €35m to Lyon for striker Karim Benzema. Lyon have accepted this bid and the player is now negotiating the terms of his transfer.

But as Cristiano Ronaldo officially became a Madrid player in a €94m deal with Man United, Benzema’s deal eliminated another attacking option from Alex Ferguson’s grand plan for next season, leaving the Old Trafford manager with almost €80m burning a hole in his pocket.

With Benzema gone, David Villa likely to remain in Spain and Bayern Munich talking Monopoly money over Franck Ribery, Ferguson may be starting to regret letting his Portuguese goal machine off to the Bernabeu. Samuel Eto’o and Zlatan Ibrahimovic also seem beyond United’s reach.

Where United will find the goals is unclear – especially if Carlos Tevez crosses Manchester to Eastlands – because it’s unlikely to be from Wigan signing Antonio Valencia, who has managed just seven in three years in the Premier League.

Madrid and United were vying for the services of 21-year-old Benzema but Lyon announced yesterday they have accepted a fee of at least €35m from Madrid for the player, with performance clauses set to see that fee rise to €41m.

A Lyon statement read: “A few days ago Karim informed the club president Jean Michel Aulas of his desire to move to the Madrid club, which had always been his favourite club after Lyon, earlier than he had foreseen.

“The player wanted to seize the opportunity which Real Madrid offered him to be one of the major elements in their new ambitious project based around the greatest players of the world.

“Lyon accepted Karim Benzema’s decision and negotiated the conditions of a transfer which satisfies all the different parties.The club wishes Karim the greatest success with Real Madrid.”

Benzema will become Florentino Perez’s fourth signing since returning to the Madrid presidency a month ago, following the arrivals of Kaka, Ronaldo and Raul Albiol.

The France forward came through the ranks with the French giants and burst onto the scene in the 2007-08 season with 31 goals in 51 games, a streak that saw him named Ligue 1 player of the year as well as top the league’s scoring charts.

The last campaign was less impressive for both club and player, as Lyon ended the season without the Ligue 1 title for the first time in eight years, but Benzema nevertheless scored 23 goals in all competitions – an average of a goal every other game.

Ronaldo’s departure from Old Trafford, confirmed in a terse statement on United’s website yesterday, now exposes more flaws than immediately obvious. Valencia solves the most apparent, the need for another wide man, the Portuguese’s nominal position. But Ronaldo, obviously, was so much more. Not only was he goals and assists, and free kicks and penalties, he was target man and No 10. More importantly, he was a mask for all of United’s ills.

United’s famous strength in depth weakens a little with every year that passes on to the legs of Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs and Gary Neville. Park Ji-Sung, Nani and Zoran Tošic are hardly wingers to terrify defenders. Dimitar Berbatov has not settled well in his first season, often a peripheral figure, rarely employed for the key games.

IN MIDFIELD, too, there are tough decisions to be made. Valencia’s David Silva could provide more balance and class on the left but there is still a hole in the middle, unless Owen Hargreaves recovers from his chronic knee troubles.

However, Bayern Munich general manager Uli Hoeness has given suitors like Real Madrid – and presumably United – a glimmer of hope in their pursuit of Franck Ribery, but reiterated that it will take “something crazy” for them to consider a sale.

Speaking on the day Louis van Gaal was officially unveiled as the Bavarians’ new coach, Hoeness revealed what he had told Real Madrid president Perez in their last telephone conversation.

He said: “I asked his right-hand man Pedro Lopez Jimenez, since Florentino does not speak English all that well, whether he knows the game Monopoly.

“I told him that Bayern had bought Mayfair on Monopoly two years ago and you don’t give Mayfair away that easily.

“We would only consider it if somebody did something crazy.”

Hoeness added that there is “no new offer and there never was an offer”, but that he had spoken several times with Lopez.

“There were a few enquiries from the top people at Madrid because we are only prepared to speak with the president or his right-hand man,” he added.

Losing out on Benzema hardly constitutes a crisis for Man Utd – their defence is solid, their squad full of class. But Ferguson has set himself high standards. At Old Trafford, nothing but the best is good enough, and even €94m cannot hide the fact they’ve just sold their best to Spain.

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