United, beware! Olympique Lyonnais have their own Cristiano Ronaldo. His name? Hatem Ben Arfa. And though still only 20, he’s far from a newcomer – his first game in Ligue 1 was in August 2004, a 1-0 victory at Nice.
Back then, he was seen as a talented amateur, and freely admits playing fast and loose with some of the strictures imposed on a professional athlete. Off the pitch, that is. On it, his incredible ease with the ball was not always a help either.
A talented player with immense potential, he was by turns breathtaking and frustrating. Many doubted his ability to succeed at the highest level, but after a series of false starts – he scored just once in 2006/07 – he is now serving up healthy slices of humble pie to his critics.
Against Toulouse, in mid-January, Ben Arfa was flying. “His first half was out of this world,” says Pierre Michaud, a journalist with French TV station, Euronews. And Michaud knows what he’s talking about, having seen almost every match at Lyon’s Stade Gerland in the last five years.
“He’s so unpredictable,” he says, an adjective that crops up time and again in analysis of Ben Arfa’s game. “He really makes it happen because he’s such a powerful, offensive force.”
Michaud likens Ben Arfa to former Lyon academy starlet, Steed Malbranque, but it’s arguable that he is now closer to the Premier League’s premier wide player: Ronaldo. The lofty parallels don’t stop there. Alongside Marseille midfielder Samir Nasri, Ben Arfa has been dubbed the ‘new Zidane’ in France.
To be fair, Ben Arfa’s promising season has, in part, been made possible thanks to the emerging talent of his attacking colleague, Karim Benzema. Also 20, Benzema seems to be the final piece of the jigsaw neatly assembled by coach Alain Perrin.
Benzema, too, is a phenomenon. The youngster is a hybrid of Wayne Rooney and Ryan Giggs with the nous of Teddy Sheringham; the resultant package