Olympique Lyonnais have proved again this year that they are in a class of their own in France, and the champions for the past five years show no sign of letting up. The Rhone club boast one of the strongest squads ever seen in French football but worryingly for their rivals they are also developing some exceptional young players.
There is no better example than striker Karim Benzema who, aged 19, is already making his mark at the highest level. Benzema has Algerian roots but grew up in the Lyon suburb of Bron Terraillon and joined his hometown team when he was nine. Recognised instantly as a precocious talent he excelled throughout his youth, scoring 38 goals in one season for Lyon's Under-16s and firing hosts France to glory at the UEFA European Under-17 Championship in 2004.
The club's director of sport Bernard Lacombe, formerly a prolific Lyon striker himself, has shown a special interest in Benzema's progress. Two years ago he alerted Lyon president Jean-Michel Aulas of his ability, saying: "It's not worth searching for a great forward elsewhere - we already have one under our noses." Gérard Houllier appears to share Lacombe's view, the Lyon coach resisting temptation to spend big in the summer despite having just two established strikers, Fred and John Carew, in his squad.
Benzema has thrived on the extra responsibility, building on the promising cameos of last season with some powerful displays. Having scored on his UEFA Champions League debut against Rosenborg BK in December 2005, he has extended his record in the competition this term to three goals in three games after finding the target against FC Steaua Bucuresti and FC Dynamo Kyiv.
His surging run and cool finish against the Ukrainian team secured Lyon's qualification for the last 16, as well as offering a glimpse of what promises to be a thrilling future. "He understands the game, makes all the right runs and, importantly, he knows exactly where the goal is," enthused Lacombe after that match.
While Benzema is clearly at home on the European stage, arguably his most important strike came against Olympique de Marseille in a top-of-the-table Ligue 1 clash in October. With Fred injured early on, Houllier told Benzema "this is the match of your life" as he thrust the teenager into the action. Unfazed by a noisy Stade Vélodrome, he led the Lyon attack with class and remarkable maturity, expertly volleying home Lyon's second goal as they ran out 4-1 winners.
Benzema's childhood hero is Ronaldo, and comparisons with the Real Madrid CF star are already being made. But while the Frenchman does not possess the dribbling skills of a young Ronaldo, it could be argued that he is more of a complete striker, capable of holding up play, winning headers and scoring from a variety of positions. Thierry Henry recently tipped Benzema to clinch the Ballon d'Or one day, while only a thigh injury prevented him from making his France debut against Greece in November. This year has been a revelatory one for Benzema, but 2007 promises to be more special still.
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