Benzema ready for a new challenge
Having opened a seven point gap at the top of Ligue 1, Olympique Lyonnais are coasting towards their eighth straight championship title but they may have to win it without the services of star striker Karim Benzema, who is openly touting himself to Europe's biggest clubs.
Benzema was expected to quit the Stade Gerland at the end of the season, but with the January transfer window fast approaching and the France international freely discussing his future away from the club, Lyon may have to finish the season without their best player and one of Europe's hottest prospects.
The 20-year-old forward leads the goalscoring charts in France with nine in 14 league matches and his opening goal against last season's runners-up Girondins Bordeaux at the weekend helped his team to a 2-1 victory that had Lyon coach Claude Puel desperately trying to convince his players that the title was not in the bag.
Prior to the top-of-the-table clash Benzema had given an interview to L'Equipe in which he made clear his interest in moving to a bigger club in Italy or England; but far from buckling under the added pressure he brought upon himself for the high-profile match, Benzema flourished. Following a quiet opening 30 minutes he opened the scoring via a one-two with strike-partner Fred and could have ended the game with a hat-trick after forcing Bordeaux keeper Mathieu Valverde to save a couple of powerful shots.
This ability to perform under the spotlight is just one of the attributes that is attracting the attention of Europe's biggest clubs. Since bursting onto the scene with 24 goals in 37 games under Alain Perrin in 2006/07, the Lyon academy graduate has been a consistent scorer in Ligue 1.
He is genuinely two-footed, with a powerful shot and can excel on either wing as well as up front. This versatility, added to his pace, power and a phenomenal eye for goal has drawn comparisons with newly-crowned FIFpro World Player of the Year Cristiano Ronaldo and would allow Benzema to easily fit into the three pronged attacks that seem to have become de rigeur amongst Europe's elite.
Lyon president Jean-Michel Aulas, who in recent times has brokered the sale of Michael Essien and Flourent Malouda to Chelsea and Mahamadou Diarra to Real Madrid, has already inserted a €100 million release clause in the player's contract, which expires in 2013. And although Aulas certainly won't get the asking price it is a clear signal for the bidding war to begin.
Benzema has already said that he wants to discuss the detrimental effect on potential suitors that his lofty valuation may have, whilst also name checking the clubs he wishes to play for, and, he claims, have shown an interest.
The Les Gones star said: "There are a lot of clubs, Barca, Real, but also Manchester United, Milan. They are all big clubs you dream about."
"I like Spain, but Manchester, Milan, you progress so much there. I want to progress at the highest level to be among the world's best."
Benzema, who scored more than 30 goals in all competitions last season, was strongly linked with a move to Manchester United last summer following impressive performances against the Red Devils during their Champions League campaign. Although that move did not go through, the transfer tittle-tattle has not abated.
Meanwhile, AC Milan's managing director Adriano Galliani has stated that while Benzema is a "great" player that he rates very highly, the price tag is far too high for the Rossineri.
"Lyon are a very expensive shop," Galliani said this week. The Milan chief added that because of the potential expense, particularly in the current financial climate, he has had no discussions with Lyon about Benzema and has instead turned his attention to Barcelona striker Samuel Eto'o.
Eto'o himself has entered the debate, with the Cameroon international insisting a stand-out talent like Benzema belongs at a club like La Liga leaders Barcelona.
"Barca are the biggest club in the world and the biggest club in the world need the best players in the world," Eto'o said. "Benzema is in that category at the moment."
High praise indeed for the Lyon-born striker who is now the name on everybody's lips as we edge nearer to the winter transfer window. Having justified his position as one of the highest paid footballers in France with a string of trophies at his local club, including four league titles, it is time for a new challenge.
His development in French football is over and unlike many starlets that have gone before him, the Ligue 1 Player of the Year seems certain to make a big impact at whichever continental super-power he ends up at.