When Real Madrid announced Karim Benzema’s departure on Sunday, it was, in a strange way, both unsurprising and shocking. Rumours had been swirling for days that the French forward had accepted a money-spinning offer from Al-Ittihad, and yet it was still a stunning development.
And not just because the current Ballon d’Or holder is set to join former team-mate Cristiano Ronaldo in Saudi Arabia this summer. Benzema has effectively dropped a bombshell on Santiago Bernabeu and left the club’s transfer plans in tatters.
The fallout from this particular deal is likely to be colossal, with the potential to significantly alter the shape of the European landscape.
‘It was really unexpected’
Madrid were rightly quick to lavish praise on one of the greatest players ever to wear their famous white shirt. “Karim Benzema’s career at Real Madrid has been a shining example of conduct and professionalism, and he has represented the values of our club,” Sunday’s official statement read. “Karim Benzema has earned the right to decide his future.”
Nobody connected with the club with dispute that latter claim, but there’s no denying that Benzema has put Madrid in a rather awkward – and wholly unexpected – position. “Benzema told us about his decision to leave the club this morning (Sunday),” coach Carlo Ancelotti told reporters. “It was really unexpected. We cannot be happy but we must respect him.”
And they always will. As the club said, the Bernabeu will forever be Benzema’s “home”. However, they’re obviously a little peeved by the nature of his departure. Real fully expected Benzema to extend his stay for a further season, thus giving them ample time to line up a replacement.
Bring forward the Mbappe move?
Madrid were, of course, already meant to have brought in another superstar French forward by this point. Benzema’s compatriot Kylian Mbappe was supposed to arrive in the Spanish capital last year, but instead performed a dramatic U-turn and elected to remain at Paris Saint-Germain.
To say that Florentino Perez & Co. were taken aback by that decision would be an understatement, but so strong remains their desire to sign the World Cup winner that they are willing to forgive and forget that very public humiliation and welcome him to the Bernabeu with open arms. The feeling was that they would sign at least one Benzema understudy this summer before going all out to finally land Mbappe in 2024. Benzema’s sudden exit, though, has changed everything.
There is already talk that Perez could now try to sign Mbappe this summer, and one can understand why. Benzema’s goals will need to be replaced if they are to have any chance of reclaiming either the Liga or Champions League title next season, and they presently don’t have anyone on their books capable of filling that void.
It’s not like they can just go out and sign the most prolific No.9 on the planet. Erling Haaland may yet end up at the Bernabeu at some point in the future but he’s certainly not going anywhere this summer and Manchester City are trying to tie him down to a new deal anyway.
In that sense, targeting Mbappe makes more sense. He is a very different player, of course, a winger rather than a striker, but he is one of the greatest goalscorers in the game today. He’s proven that at every level. As Atletico Madrid coach Diego Simeone pointed out in an interview with COPE, “Real Madrid always signs the best.” And they have undeniably developed a useful habit of getting their way, sooner or later, one way or another.
‘I will honour my contract’
However, signing Mbappe this summer looks complicated in the extreme. If he’d joined Madrid last year, he would have done so on a free transfer; this time around, though, they would have to pay a record-breaking fee for his services, given he still has one year left on his PSG contract.
And that’s presuming that the French club’s Qatari owners could somehow be persuaded to part company with a player that is even more important to their brand than ever before, with Lionel Messi having already left Paris, and Neymar tipped to follow him out the door.
The will of the player will be key, though. High-profile players have a way of getting what they want these days, so if Mbappe pushes for a move, he could well make it happen. However, after picking up a fourth consecutive Ligue 1 Player of the Year award last week, he insisted that he will “honour” his contract with PSG.
So, it’s by no means a given that Mbappe will want to throw his hometown club into total disarray by demanding a move this summer.
‘We will sign strikers’
An even greater obstacle to any proposed deal is Madrid’s budget. The feeling was that the club would spend around €200 million (£172m/$214m) in this summer’s transfer window, the majority of which would go on Jude Bellingham. The most in-demand midfielder on the market is set to arrive for approximately €120m (£106/$132m) and it presently appears unlikely that Madrid would be able to sign Mbappe in the same window from a purely financial perspective.
It’s not as if they’re getting any money for Benzema, after all, while the club has also just made a monumental loss on Eden Hazard, with the Belgian’s contract cancelled by mutual consent four years after being bought from Chelsea for €100m (£88m/$110m).
Marco Asensio and Mariano are also leaving, of course, but while the wage bill will be greatly reduced by the exodus of forwards, Madrid are seriously short on numbers in attack. They won’t only need a guaranteed goalscorer this summer, they’ll require some strength in depth, quality players capable of filling in for Vinicius Junior and Rodrygo.
“We will sign strikers,” Ancelotti vowed after Sunday evening’s 1-1 draw with Athletic Club. “We have time to think about what we should do.” But not that much, truth be told. Most clubs draw up their list of transfer targets well before the end of the season. The very best actually have some deals finalised by the time the window opens.
Madrid, though, are going to be playing catch-up, facing a race against time to both find and sign a worthy heir to Benzema’s throne.
Could Kane fill the void?
Harry Kane would obviously make for an excellent replacement, the England international is the kind of complete attacker that could both score and create goals in a similar style to Benzema. Funnily, enough both were directly involved in exactly the same amount of goals this season (37).
Tottenham would obviously demand a hefty fee for Kane, even if he only has one year left on his current Spurs deal, but chairman Daniel Levy would obviously rather sell his most prized possession to an overseas side rather than a Premier League rival. The word is, though, that Kane would rather remain in England, meaning he could take some convincing.
On the face of it, Victor Osimhen looks like a great fit. The Nigerian is just 24 and coming off the best season of his career. A number of elite European clubs have already been lining up to sign him. However, Napoli president Aurelio De Laurentiis, another contrary character, would not even entertain letting Osimhen leave for anything less than a record-breaking figure for a Serie A player, which again begs the Bellingham-related question: is Perez really in a position to pay more than €100m for just two players this summer?
Back in for Havertz?
Given the answer seems to be a resounding no, it’s hardly been surprising to hear talk of Madrid resurrecting their interest in Chelsea’s Kai Havertz, whom they tried to sign last year. However, while the Germany international has long been expected to develop into an all-round attacker, he’s failed miserably to do so at Stamford Bridge – even before the London club became a clown show. Havertz, for all his gifts, just does not guarantee goals.
It would be a similar story with Roberto Firmino. The free agent is a far better player than Havertz, but he’s never been prolific either and couldn’t really be considered anything but a stop-gap signing. But this is Perez’s predicament now. Unless he can secure an agreement with Mbappe – either for this season or the next – the fans will simply not be satisfied unless a world-class forward arrives to replace Benzema.
Ancelotti is acutely aware of what his team needs. On Sunday night, he stated, “We want to sign a striker who scores goals, gets involved in play and adapts to our game.” Finding one at the right price, though, will be far from easy, even for a club of Madrid’s wealth and status.
Given his 14 years of incredible service, Karim Benzema certainly didn’t owe Real anything. But his impromptu exit could still cost the club dearly. — Goal