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How do you cope when the Ballon D’Or holder leaves your club? With 358 goals and a surprised head coach in his wake, Karim Benzema is jilting Real Madrid.

Benzema’s last Madrid goal came 18 minutes from time at home to Athletic Bilbao on Sunday, converting a penalty for his 18th goal in 23 appearances across an injury-hit but still prolific season.

Despite scoring five goals more than any other team, Madrid finished 10 points behind champions Barcelona – and the loss of Benzema gives manager Carlo Ancelotti another problem as he bids to bridge that gap in 2023/24 and improve on a comprehensive UEFA Champions League semifinal defeat at Manchester City when his squad looked in need of a refresh.

Who will Madrid turn to in the summer transfer window? From Harry Kane to Neymar, the Sporting News goes through 10 candidates who could be their next number nine.

Roberto Firmino (Liverpool)

The leading Brazilian marksman in Premier League history surprised Jurgen Klopp by announcing he would leave Liverpool when his contract expires in July – and then showed his manager what he would be missing by scoring in each of the Reds’ final two games of the campaign.

Firmino finished on the highest goals-per-90-minutes tally of any player except Erling Haaland to have played more than 20 games in the 2022/23 Premier League.

On our shortlist, he performed the most successful passes per game of any player except Neymar and was only beaten by his compatriot and Kylian Mbappe when it came to touches per 90 minutes.

Speaking before the end of the season, Firmino’s agent, Roger Wittmann, said his client had “no clue” about his immediate future after eight years at Anfield. “He’s not motivated by other clubs or by financial terms – far from it,” Wittmann told Football Insider.

Firmino has already spoken to Madrid president Florentino Perez about a three-year deal worth around £83,000 ($103,000) a week, Defensa Central has claimed. He is also likely to be a target for the four Saudi Pro League clubs who have been taken over by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund.

Kai Havertz (Chelsea)

Havertz would need to transform his game to have any chance of recreating Benzema’s scoring form, having only once scored 20 goals in all competitions in a single season and suffering, like all Chelsea players, during a torrid 2022/23 campaign.

The Germany international has by far the lowest shot conversion rate on this list but the third-highest passing accuracy behind Neymar and Mbappe, suggesting he could be a creative option to supplement a new striker rather than a direct replacement for Benzema.

Kai Havertz

Former Bayer Leverkusen prodigy Havertz fared relatively well during a campaign when almost all of Chelsea’s players underachieved spectacularly, scoring nine times and contributing one assist but finishing the season by going 10 appearances without a goal.

He was one of the few regular starters for Graham Potter during the former manager’s brief and disastrous mid-season reign, scoring in a 2-0 Champions League win over Borussia Dortmund that proved the high point of the season.

Chelsea need to shed players from their bloated squad this summer and their financial position could make Madrid’s reported £52m ($64.7m) bid for Havertz tempting. The 23-year-old has a deal until 2025 at Stamford Bridge.

Kylian Mbappe (Paris St-Germain)

It is conceivable that talk of Mbappe moving to Madrid will only end when he joins the club – with ludicrous sums of money certain to be involved – or retires.

Madrid’s long pursuit of the Paris St-Germain striker eased when they failed with a final bid of £154m ($191.2m) just before the summer 2021 transfer window closed, but he has been persistently linked with them again despite signing a three-year contract in 2022.

Kylian Mbappe

At 24, Mbappe would be capable of repeating the longevity at Madrid enjoyed by the likes of Benzema, who stayed for 14 years, Raul – a Merengue for 16 years – or club legend Alfredo Di Stefano, whose record between 1953 and 1964 still makes him the club’s fourth-highest scorer ever.    

Some 44 goals and assists combined in the past season, along with Mbappe’s profile, give him the Galactico status Madrid have always coveted. But their complex financial picture raises questions about whether they can countenance a deal, especially if they spend more than £100m ($124.1m) on Borussia Dortmund’s Jude Bellingham as well this summer.

There is conjecture over whether the final year of Mbappe’s deal is optional. Even if PSG can’t command the colossal fee they would want to buy out the France captain’s contract, his wage demands would be stratospheric.

Neymar (PSG)

Between the start of last season and the end of 2022, Neymar directly contributed to 26 goals in 20 appearances for PSG.

With a crushing inevitability, he then missed a chunk of games through injury as he failed to make more than 30 appearances in all competitions for the fifth time in six seasons.

That means the sample size is smaller, but Neymar’s numbers are still staggering and it is easy to see why his supernatural talent makes him a perennial transfer target for clubs of Madrid’s size. His chance creation of 2.8 per game is 1.14 more than the next-nearest player on our list (Mbappe), while he manages more than eight passes into the penalty area per game – more than twice as many as anyone else.

He has by far the most touches, carries and progressive carries, duel success percentage and successful passes in the opposition final third, and his passing accuracy is the best. Only Mbappe shades him on dribble completion.

PSG are thought to have triggered an extension clause in 2022 committing Neymar to them until 2027, so it could take a bid approaching the £200m ($248.3m) they paid for him in 2017 – still the highest fee ever paid for a footballer – to prise the 31-year-old from Paris.

Neymar has emerged as a possible target for Manchester United but a rival approach from Madrid would not be the first time they have shown an interest.

Neymar’s father, Neymar da Silva Sr, has said that Los Blancos offered £116.5m ($144.6m) for his son before he left Brazilian side Santos in 2013, with their target accepting lower wages to play for Barcelona, he said.

Joselu (Espanyol)

Far from a Galactico signing but with a track record in La Liga, Joselu has hit some of the best form of his career at the age of 33, making his debut for Spain earlier this year and scoring twice in two minutes on his debut in a Euro 2024 qualifier against Norway.

Joselu is familiar with the task of replacing Benzema, doing so on several occasions when he tried to break into the first team on a consistent basis during his prolific time with Madrid’s reserves between 2009 and 2012.

Since then, the Stuttgart-born Celta Vigo youth product has made permanent moves to Hoffenheim, Hannover, Stoke City, Newcastle United and Alaves, failing to find the net with convincing regularity at any of those clubs.

This season, though, the man with by far the fewest progressive carries per 90 minutes on our list has been directly involved in 18 goals in 34 Liga appearances – an achievement enhanced by his success coming at relegated Espanyol.

That was the second successive relegation Joselu has been involved in and activated a clause in his contract allowing him to move to another team on loan. Having made his debut for the club under Jose Mourinho 12 years ago, Madrid are now in advanced talks to take him back on a temporary basis in 2023-24, according to an ESPN source.

Compared to some of the levels of investment required to have a chance of committing players on this list, Joselu would be a very small risk.

Dusan Vlahovic (Juventus)

Madrid might hope a change will restore Vlahovic to his former self following two underwhelming seasons at Juventus for the most expensive signing of the January 2022 transfer window.

The Serbia striker scored more than 20 goals in successive seasons for former club Fiorentina, enticing Juve to part with £66.6m ($82.8m) for a player who has found the net just 17 times across his first two campaigns in Turin.

Vlahovic started last season with six goals and one assist in nine Serie A appearances, only to go 11 games without a goal shortly after returning from an injury absence of almost three months.

No player on our list has won fewer average duels per 90 minutes than Vlahovic, and his creation of chances and assists per game is only above Joselu, who is the sole player to join him in carving out less than one per match.

At 23, Madrid could see Vlahovic as a player with immense potential who would cost less than a more established goalscorer at the highest level. Transfer expert Nicolo Schira has claimed that Vlahovic wants to leave Juve if Max Allegri remains manager, adding that he is “in the sights” of Bayern Munich and Manchester United.

Harry Kane (Tottenham)

Surely the most direct replacement for Benzema potentially available, the idea of Madrid signing Kane is a terrifying thought for rivals and could make them even more of a force than they were with prime Benzema.

In 2022/23, Kane had one of his finest seasons albeit in a toiling Tottenham side who fared so badly that they missed out on European qualification, their talisman reduced to watching in horror at their inadequacies at the back.

His tally of 30 Premier League goals put him 10 ahead of any other player and only six behind Manchester City’s largely unstoppable Erling Haaland, while Kane’s shot accuracy and goal conversion figures were better than anyone to have scored more than 15 times in the top flight.

The England captain was expected to join Manchester City for £160m ($198.6m) during the 2021 summer window before a combination of City’s unwillingness to pay that much, and his loyalty to Spurs, kiboshed the move.

With his 30th birthday in July, his contract up in 2024 and each barren season at Tottenham bringing him closer to a career without a trophy, could this be the year when Kane leaves his boyhood club? United would also be in the running.

Victor Osimhen (Napoli)

The top scorer by five goals in Serie A last season with 26, Osimhen left nearest rival Lautaro Martinez trailing in his dust by scoring more than 0.9 per 90 minutes – the Argentina forward was the next-nearest player, on a distant 0.73.

Osimhen also needed only 99 minutes per goal – Martinez was again second, requiring 123 minutes – and did it despite playing six games fewer than his Inter rival.

Those games he missed could indicate a concern: Osimhen has sat out 40 games through injury over the past three seasons. Conversely, his figures should be even better if he can stay fit for a full term.

A 24-year-old whose potent form for Nigeria has already made him one of his country’s all-time top 10 scorers, Osimhen would be expensive and is the subject of attempts by Napoli president Aurelio De Laurentiis to extend his contract beyond 2025.

United, again, are widely thought to be likely rivals if Madrid move for Osimhen, who did not sound desperate to leave when he was asked about his future after scoring in the champions’ final game of the season.

“I don’t mind” Osimhen told DAZN. “The president decides and I will just go with the flow. I love the people of Napoli – they have shown me so much love. They deserve this and hopefully we’ll have many more trophies to come.”

Lautaro Martinez (Inter Milan)

Martinez has been involved in at least 25 goals in each of the last four seasons, the current one becoming his zenith as he helped Inter reach the Champions League final and scored 28 goals in all competitions, as well as providing 11 assists.

A run of 11 goals and four assists across April and May was particularly important in helping Inter finish third in Serie A and continue their unexpectedly long run in Europe. Martinez has featured in every one of their games this season and missed only two through unavailability in 2021/22.

The 25-year-old, whose contract runs until 2026, was a more peripheral figure in Argentina’s 2022 FIFA World Cup win, playing no direct involvement in any of the champions’ goals and appearing for a combined 85 minutes after their second match of the tournament.

Some 21 goals in Serie A made Martinez the only player apart from Osimhen to score more than 16 times in the division, and Ancelotti “asked for more information” about him at the end of May, according to The Athletic.

“We haven’t heard anything at all about the idea that Real Madrid are interested in him,” Inter Vice-President Javier Zanetti told TyC Sports, via FCInterNews. “He has an immense mentality. He carries respect on and off the pitch.”

Randal Kolo Muani (Eintracht Frankfurt)

After hitting double figures for goals and assists combined in successive seasons with Ligue 1 side Nantes, Muani has had a breakthrough year with Eintracht Frankfurt by directly contributing to four more goals than any other player in the Bundesliga.

The 24-year-old scored 15 times and finished four league goal involvements ahead of next-nearest rival Jamal Musiala, who plays for a Bayern side that finished six places and 21 points above Eintracht.

Muani’s leading tally of 11 assists might make him appeal more to Madrid as a creator, and he would undoubtedly entertain: on our list, only Mbappe and Neymar made more total or progressive carries per 90 minutes, while the 2.22 completed dribbles he averages per game is at least twice as many as any other player apart from the PSG duo.

A member of the France squad who reached the World Cup final, Muani is under contract until 2027 and has a price tag of £68.7m ($85.3m). According to the Mirror, he’s another player United are tracking.

“Who doesn’t dream of playing in the Premier League?” Muani asked Canal Football Club. “It’s one of the best leagues that exists.

“You dream about it. But I’m not searching for the perfect club or the best club in the world. I’m really looking for the club that will give me the chance to be able to express myself, to earn game time and, most importantly, allow me to grow.”



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