United lose to Real in race for Benzema

Extraordinary bidding war for £30m Lyons striker dashes Ferguson's summer plans
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The Independent Football

Real Madrid continued their extraordinary summer of transfer market supremacy over Manchester United last night, by beating them to the signature of the 21-year-old French international striker Karim Benzema.

On the day that United finally sold Cristiano Ronaldo to Real for £80m, concluding a two-year pursuit of the player that Sir Alex Ferguson had insisted the Spanish club would never win, Real secured Benzema's services for a €35m (£30m) fee that could rise to €41m (£35m). There were unconfirmed suggestions from Spain that United had yesterday challenged Real's bid with a £40m offer of their own, which Lyons' communications director added to when he confirmed there had, indeed, been a bid of more than €35m that was not necessarily Real's. But Benzema had always said his preference was to sign for the Madrileños and align himself with his compatriot Zinedine Zidane, a senior adviser at the club who had pushed to sign him.

The France international's decision leaves Ferguson with rapidly diminishing options as he seeks replacements for Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez, whose own contract at Old Trafford expired on Tuesday. The obvious available big name contenders are Internazionale's Zlatan Ibrahimovic, rarely a player who has fired against the physical presence of English sides, and perhaps Samuel Eto'o. There were suggestions from Spain yesterday that Eto'o would be keen to sign for United for less than the £200,000 a week Manchester City are offering, though Ferguson's general inclination to go for players of 26 or under would appear to rule out the 28-year-old Barcelona striker – as does his commitment to Cameroon's African Nations Cup campaign in January.

Michael Owen as a short-term measure? The prospect is an intriguing one. Ferguson tried to sign the 29-year-old as a youngster and there have been rumours that he has returned with inquiries since. The £40,000 a week Owen might be prepared to accept will certainly not hurt United and there are enough attacking options at Old Trafford to make the risk of injuries to which Owen has become prone less of a problem than at most other clubs. A possibility, perhaps, but the good money now has to be on Ferguson not seeking further front line reinforcements.

Benzema, a predominantly right-footed player, seemed to fit the bill for United, whose £17m signature of Wigan Athletic's Antonio Valencia on Tuesday still leaves them looking light on strikers.

Ferguson was left merely to pay tribute to the player he had lost to Real, yesterday. "Cristiano has been a marvellous player for Manchester United," Ferguson said as United confirmed the £80m transfer. "His six years at Old Trafford have seen him develop into the best footballer in the world. Everyone here wishes him well in his future career."