Olympique Lyonnais believe they have discovered a future star in teenage striker Karim Benzema, who scored his first goal for the club in last week's UEFA Champions League win against Rosenborg BK.
The 17-year-old was handed his first start for the French champions in their final Group F game, as coach Gérard Houllier rested several senior players. Houllier said the match provided an opportunity for some of Lyon's younger players to "show off their great potential" - and Benzema did just that.
The powerful youngster was a menace to the Norwegian side from the start, lining up behind John Carew and running at defenders whenever possible. Showing no fear, he almost broke through twice in the first half-hour with his speed and intelligent running. He then showed off his dribbling skills by jinking past two defenders and shooting narrowly wide from the edge of the box.
With the Rosenborg defence creaking, it seemed inevitable that Benzema would succeed sooner or later, and his crowning moment duly arrived in the 33rd minute. Carew did much of the hard work, steaming up the right and cutting a cross into the path of Benzema who rifled home at the near post.
'Scoring was fantastic'
The French youth international had numerous chances to score again, but some superb goalkeeping from Espen Johnsen kept him out. Not that Benzema was complaining. "Scoring that goal was fantastic," he beamed after the 2-1 victory. "I'd like to thank the boss for showing faith in me, and John Carew for setting me up. When I scored I thought of my family. Then I tried to jump on John's shoulders, but he's two metres tall so that proved difficult!"
Benzema has set lofty targets throughout his youth. He scored 38 times for Lyon's Under-16 team in 2003/04, then helped France win the UEFA European U17 Championship. The way the burly forward darted into space and applied a clinical finish against Rosenborg outlined his obvious predatory instincts. French sports daily L'Equipe wrote: "Benzema is a pure striker. His poise in front of goal and his precise finishing evoke memories of David Trezeguet at the same age."
'A great player'
One of his biggest fans is Lyon sporting director Bernard Lacombe. The second-most prolific marksman in Ligue 1 history, Lacombe believes Benzema could follow in his footsteps. "I made my first start on 7 December 1969, he made his on 6 December," said the former Lyon great. "I hadn't turned 18 either and I also scored!" Lacombe's faith is not only based on superstition, however. "Benzema has self-confidence and knows where the goal is. But he's also respectful and keen to learn. If he keeps that mentality he'll become a great player - and he will keep that mentality."
Houllier will do everything possible to ensure that Benzema remains humble. "He's got a striker's instincts and he doesn't do things like other players," said the one-time France coach. "There's no doubt he's a special talent. But be careful. It'd be a mistake for him to think that he has reached the end of his development."
Not that Houllier was denying Benzema his moment of glory. By substituting him in the last minute, he offered home supporters an opportunity to show their appreciation, and they responded with a rousing ovation. Benzema, who was born in Bron just 2km from the Stade Gerland, has all the makings of a future crowd favourite. And he certainly appears at home on the big stage.
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