Manchester City have identified the Montpellier midfielder Younes Belhanda as a back-up target, with their pursuit of Eden Hazard, one of the Continent's brightest talents, proving more difficult than the club had first anticipated.
The Moroccan Belhanda, 22, is a key cog of the Montpellier side which, against all expectations, is in position to ruin the title hopes of the Qataris who have invested heavily in Paris St-Germain. City are beginning to apply themselves to the possible acquisition of the £7m-rated Morocco international because, after two months' hard pursuit of the 21-year-old Hazard, which has included a property tour of the Cheshire commuter belt, the demands of the player's representatives are becoming a source of severe concern.
Hazard, for whom Tottenham Hotspur made the early running, with Sir Alex Ferguson another self-professed enthusiast, was always likely to be an expensive acquisition, with a price tag of around £30m. But it is understood that his agent is demanding that Hazard be placed among the club's highest earners – something the club cannot and will not accede to.
Belhanda would be a far cheaper option because, while he has been vying with Hazard as the standout player this season, this has been his first genuinely big campaign and he is more untested. The core of René Girard's Montpellier side is the generation of young players who lifted the French youth cup, the Coupe Gambardella, in 2009, and Belhanda, whom Girard has compared to Robert Pires, is foremost among them. He is also in the mould of Samir Nasri, Montpellier through and through, in the way that Nasri lived and breathed Marseilles.
Like Nasri he is versatile, with the ability to work the flanks and as a playmaker. But he is at his best operating behind a lone striker. He has operated behind Olivier Giroud, this season, in a 4-4-1-1 system, and been the individual who makes Montpellier tick. A product of Montpellier's academy, and with 12 goals and six assists, he boasts a superior record to the €43m (£34m) Javier Pastore, the most expensive of PSG's summer recruits.
There is evidence that he would bring City another combustible character, though. Belhanda was sent off amid a mass brawl last week and could face a prolonged ban for punching Evian's Cédric Mongongu on his way back to the dressing room. After the match, he turned on Giroud for not taking a penalty which Souleymane Camara missed in stoppage time. It meant a 2-2 draw, which has allowed PSG to go back to the top of Ligue 1.
It is Hazard whom Roberto Mancini covets most and the City manager is understood to have become increasingly concerned already that United or Spurs may steal in if his own club delay.
This summer may well be another in which Mancini's desires are tempered by the strategy of the club's football administrator, Brian Marwood, who must also seek to bring the club in line with Uefa's financial fair play parameters. A title for City would strengthen the manager's hand, at a time when he feels a playmaker is one of City's missing pieces.
Arsenal's manager, Arsene Wenger, said of Belhanda. "I know him well. He plays without any complexities. His real talent is dribbling, passing, and he has good technique, which can influence any game. I am sure of his potential. I love this player, but I do not want to create problems. Montpellier will decide if he leaves. Once that happens we might look at him, but we respect Montpellier." Belhanda, who has two years left on his contract, said: "My dream is to play in England or Germany. Everybody wants to play in the Premier League. There are great clubs like Arsenal".
Belhanda in brief
Born 25 February 1990 in Avignon.
Youth career RC Aramonais (1997-98), MJC Avignon (1998-03), Montpellier (2003-09).
Clubs Montpellier (2009-).
International France U20 (2 caps, 0 goals), Morocco (12 caps, 1 goal).
Can play as a central midfielder, on the wing or just behind the striker, and has scored 12 league goals this season.
Played for Morocco in this year's African Nations Cup with Queen's Park Rangers' Adel Taarabt and Arsenal's Marouane Chamakh, but they went out in the group stage.
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