Pitchside

Mehdi the Magnificent without rival in Serie A this season

Pitchside

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“This evening [it’s the] derby… I’m gonna say that Roma will win,” tweeted Mehdi Benatia on April 8, 2013. As someone who “lives for football” and watches “10s of games” a week, the then Udinese defender wasn’t about to miss one as big as the Derby del Cupolone. It was an opportunity to goad his teammate Giampiero Pinzi too. “He’s a Lazio fan and I used to take the mickey out of him. I always asked him how could he not support Roma.”

A 1-1 draw meant neither player had anything to gloat about at training the next day. One can only imagine, though, how Pinzi reacted when Lazio overcame Roma in the Coppa Italia final in May. He must have been insufferable. Perhaps that’s why Benatia left Udinese a month later. Or so the joke goes between them.

There was no shortage of offers. For some time, Benatia had been attracting serious interest. No sooner had Paris Saint-Germain been taken over by the Qatar Sport Investments fund than their general manager Leonardo was on the phone to Udinese owner Gino Pozzo asking whether Benatia was for sale. He wasn’t. This was two years ago. Udinese had just finished fourth. They’d let one centre-back - Cristian Zapata - leave that summer and weren’t about to deprive themselves of another. And besides, after selling Gokhan Inler to Napoli and Alexis Sanchez to Barcelona, they didn’t need PSG’s money either.

So Benatia stayed and developed further as Udinese went one better and finished third. Maybe PSG would come in for him again. Instead, they bought Thiago Silva from Milan and, given the opportunity, who can blame them. The world’s best centre-back had departed Serie A. Many around the league were asking who’d succeed him as the No.1 playing in Italy.

Juventus’ Andrea Barzagli had matched him. Then there was Napoli’s Hugo Campagnaro and Benatia, much younger than both of them. Had a series of muscle injuries not kept him out for the first half of last season, one suspects his candidacy as the best defender in Serie A would have been more pronounced.

Just how important he had become to Udinese was underlined over that period. Without him, they looked like a mid-table side. With him, they returned to what they’d been in recent years: a contender for a place in Europe. Udinese climbed from ninth to fifth once Benatia recovered his fitness and form. They won each of their final seven games, the last one being a 5-2 dismantling of Inter at San Siro. Benatia came full circle that day.

Three years earlier Udinese coach Francesco Guidolin had given the Morocco international his debut against the same opponent at the same ground too. That was a huge show of faith in Benatia.

To think this was a player who’d been inducted into Clairefontaine and then been part of Marseille’s academy, playing in the same youth team as his great friend Samir Nasri. And yet until then he had never been given a shot at a high level. Benatia left OM without making a first team appearance.

It was the same story at Lorient. At one point he went up to Christian Gourcuff and said: “Coach, you’re killing me. If I don’t play, I have nothing to live for.” Only Nasri seemed to recognise the talent Benatia had. “He told me: ‘I’m going to talk to Wenger’. And I said: ‘You’re crazy’.”

Whether Nasri did or not, we’ll perhaps never know but it wasn’t long before Udinese’s scouting network spotted Benatia at Clermont-Ferrand and picked him up for nothing. “I came from Ligue 2 without ever having played in Ligue 1. I just needed someone to give me a chance.”

For that, he’ll always be grateful to Udinese and to Guidolin. But it was time to move on. “I don’t want to name names but I turned down [the opportunity to play in the] Champions League,” Benatia revealed, “and said ‘no’ to two other Italian clubs [one of which was Napoli, who’d also qualified for the tournament].” He’d given his word to another. Heaven knows what Pinzi would think? It was Roma.

Remarkably not everyone was enthused. Some thought that at €13.5m (£11.6m), they’d overpaid - Inter got Campagnaro for free - and that Roma had also given up too much by including Nico Lopez in the deal, a star of the Under-20 World Cup, who many thought the club would regret parting with especially after Erik Lamela’s sale and his replacement with Gervinho.

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It was a strange reaction really. An explanation for it might be that many fans thought the teenage Marquinhos was the next Thiago Silva and the future of Roma’s and Brazil’s defences. But with PSG bidding €31m for a player they’d paid only €5.7m for a year earlier, Roma would have been mad to turn down the offer, plus they needed the windfall.

And besides, for all Marquinhos’s potential, in Benatia they were getting a proven player with three seasons’ experience in Serie A, who’d garnered a reputation as one of its best centre-backs, one who  was only 26 too, not 33 like Campagnaro or 32 like Barzagli.

He wouldn’t take long to win over the fans. Ask yourself this question: of Roma’s six new arrivals over the summer, who has made the biggest difference? It’s probably a toss-up between Benatia and Kevin Strootman, isn’t it? Considering that the defence was the area of the team most in need of an upgrade - Roma let in 56 goals last season - and how much better it has become - it’s the best in Europe with only one goal conceded in nine matches - the inclination, though, is to go with Benatia.

Fellow new signings, goalkeeper Morgan de Sanctis and Douglas Maicon, have played their part in that and Roma are defending better as a team with Daniele De Rossi often dropping in, but the leader of this backline is without doubt Mehdi the Magnificent. Though not the quickest, his positioning, anticipation and physicality set him apart in Serie A at the moment.

Got a big man that needs taking caring of? Benatia will handle business. After every game, he empties his pockets and a striker falls out. Looking back on his career, playing in Ligue 2 with Tours and Clermont was a great apprenticeship. “Our second division is more physical, it’s full of Africans,” says Benatia who has often come up against Samuel Eto’o and Emmanuel Adebayor on international duty with Morocco too.

He was Man of the Match on Sunday, as Roma made it nine wins out of nine, matching the best ever start to a season in Serie A made by Fabio Capello’s Juventus in 2005-06, a record that coach Rudi Garcia doesn’t recognise given the Scudetto was revoked from that team following the Calciopoli scandal.

But back to Benatia. Roma’s latest victory was an emotional one for him, as it came against Udinese. It was Benatia’s first return to Friuli since his departure in the summer. He’s still close to many people at the club. His former team-mate Thomas Heurtaux had been to visit him in Rome in the week and text messages had been exchanged with Antonio Di Natale.

“It’ll be difficult to find the right concentration on seeing many friends and my old coach again for the first time,” Benatia confessed. But he did, holding fort even when his team went down to 10 men, keeping Roma in the game so that should they get a chance to win it, which they did, they’d take home the points. “A rubber wall” is what La Gazzetta dello Sport likened his performance to.

Quite incredibly, Benatia has now been on the winning side in each of his last 16 games [seven for Udinese, nine for Roma]. Only one player in Serie A history has been on such a streak. That was Dejan Stankovic in 2006. Part of the Inter side that won 17 games in a row in 2006, a Serie A record, he missed the game that interrupted that series of results - a 1-1 draw with Udinese - then came back and picked up where he left off before his own run ended at 20. Can Benatia go beyond it? With Chievo, Torino, Sassuolo, Cagliari and Atalanta next up on Roma’s fixture list, perhaps he might just be able to, yes.

James Horncastle - @JamesHorncastle

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