Manchester United have lost out on signing the French prodigy Raphaël Varane, whose club Lens announced yesterday that he will be joining Real Madrid this summer in a deal worth around £10m.
Varane, 19, was a long-standing target for United but the France Under-21 international has opted to join Real having had a choice of some of Europe's leading clubs. The news came as United tied up a £17m deal for Ashley Young, 25, from Aston Villa on a five-year deal that takes his wages up to around £80,000 a week.
The Lens president, Gervais Martel, said yesterday that Varane, who made his debut for the club at the age of 17, would go to Madrid with his blessing. Describing Varane as a "phenomenon", Martel said that the player had been in contact with Zinedine Zidane in the build-up to his decision and had also visited Real's training facilities.
Martel said: "He is a great lad and he will be wearing the Real shirt next season. They have been in touch with him for the last two months and he has been over to visit their training ground. He said to me that he could not turn down this kind of opportunity. The move has not been agreed because of money. It is about his career and he is going to a club with a lot of ambition."
The competition for Varane demonstrates just how hard it is to sign the best developing prospects in European football, never mind the established stars. Four years ago United were able to sign Luis Nani and Anderson from their Portuguese club sides with relatively little competition but now even Real, who traditionally buy older players, are trying to tap the younger market.
Young, United's second signing of the summer after the acquisition of Phil Jones from Blackburn Rovers, said yesterday that he does not intend to be a squad player at the club. Young said: "I'm coming here to establish myself in the team. I know it is going to be a challenge but I am up for that challenge. There is a lot of competition for places and it is always nice to have someone biting at your heels trying to get your place.
"I'm excited. At the moment it's surreal but I am pleased to eventually have signed. Of course I am going to miss Aston Villa and the fans and staff but to get the opportunity to come here and play for one of the biggest clubs in the world, and with such great players, was something I couldn't turn down.
"I hope I become part of the history here by winning the [club's] 20th title. Playing at one of the biggest clubs in the world is a prospect I have always looked at and when the chance came along I had to take it with both hands.
"I just got a buzz inside [when United made their interest known] and a great feeling that probably the greatest manager in the world wanted to sign me. As soon as I got the call I just wanted to get things sorted and get back into training. We are back on 4 July and I can't wait for it."
Having signed Jones and Young, and lost out on Varane, the prospect of landing Luka Modric – United's priority this summer – looks ever more unlikely. The club have to decide whether to invest in a similar player now or wait another season to see if they can get the Croatia international in a year's time.
"United have been a fantastic team over the years, they always produce great players and always fight for titles," Young told MUTV. "They have always had that winning mentality. For myself as a player I have always wanted to be the best since I was a kid. At a club like this you will always be challenging to win titles."