- Position: Centre-back;
- Born: Courcouronnes, France, April 1987 (age 27);
- Club: AS Roma (2013-present);
- Former: Marseille (2003-2008), Tours – loan (2006-2007), Lorient – loan (2007-2008), Clermont (2008-2010), Udinese (2010-2013);
- International: Morocco (31 caps, 1 goal)
- 2013-14 Serie A Statistics: 32(1) games, 5 goals;
- Estimated Value: £20-25m
When asked ‘who’s heard of Benatia?’ many fans will stare blankly. No, it’s not a homeopathic medicine or a lesser known province of the Lebanon – Benatia is in fact one of the hottest defenders in Italian football; one your team probably wants to buy this summer.
An often-ignored member of the famed ’87 generation and once cast aside by his boyhood club Marseille, if you haven’t yet heard of Medhi Benatia, let me introduce you to one of Serie A’s leading and classiest defenders.
Born in France to Moroccan and Algerian parents, Benatia was selected at a young age for Clairefontaine, France’s top academy for the nation’s brightest young footballers. Here, he was part of the group which made up France’s much-hyped 1987 vintage, including Karim Benzema and Samir Nasri. He began his career with a year at Guingamp, before signing as a youth player with Marseille – rooming with Nasri, the pair remain close friends. At this time he also completed a successful trial at Chelsea but reportedly turned down the contract over fears of not getting enough game time.
For the 2006-07 season (still a mere teenager), Benatia agreed a loan move to lower-league Tours to gain playing time – even though he impressed, it wasn’t enough for Marseille to provide first-team action. Disaster struck during a frustratingly-inactive subsequent loan move to Lorient, as Benatia tore his knee ligaments. Marseille offered little support, later admitting that they simply did not view him as good enough. Injured and out of contract, the defender signed for French second division club Clermont.
It was here that he fully healed, and began to show his qualities in full. The Moroccan national team took notice and, having abandoned any hope of playing for France, Benatia elected to play for the country of his father’s birth instead – not for the first time, choosing the option which would provide guaranteed playing time. During his second year at Clermont, he was spotted by Udinese’s highly regarded scouting network, and transferred to the exciting Italians.
In Italy his talents as a remarkably cultured defender, as well as a powerful athlete allowed him to quickly settle in, and helped continue the Zebrette’s consistent overachieving in Serie A, despite their limited budget. Alongside the talented but volatile Brazillian Danilo, Benatia provided a solid base to support the likes of Alexis Sanchez and the iconic Toto Di Natale. It was fast becoming clear that Benatia would not stay at the Friuli for good, as increasingly tempting offers arrived from across the continent. Eventually, a €13.5m offer from AS Roma was accepted in the summer of 2013 and Benatia moved again.
This season, the Moroccan has cemented his reputation as one of the best defenders in Italy, if not Europe. He has been at the heart of a resurgent Roma side, given direction and stability by Rudi Garcia. Benatia’s formidable defensive partnership with a fellow Brazilian, the excellent Leandro Castan, has seen Roma concede only 25 goals this term – less than half that of last season – and helpd the Galiorossi to a comfortable 2nd place behind the unassailable Juventus.
It’s not difficult to argue that Mehdi Benatia has become a defender of the highest quality, who could play comfortably for any of Europe’s top sides. Think less-Marco Materazzi, and more-Alessandro Nesta – Benatia’s brilliant reading of the game allows him to position himself perfectly in most situations, meaning he can often collect the ball cleanly and move it forward rather than be forced to make heroic but risky last-ditch tackles. His ample pace also allows him to effectively cover space left elsewhere in defence. In addition, he has proven a useful attacking threat recently, particularly from set pieces – scoring five goals in the first half of this season. He has the intelligence and tactical ability to adapt to many systems and styles, and with world class defenders at a premium in the current state of the game, the likes of Barcelona and Manchester City are hot on the heels of this talented Moroccan.
As some have already commented, the player who was quietly shunted from France’s Generation ‘87 could well turn out to be the best they had. Wherever his future lies, one thing is for certain – at 27, Benatia is coming into his prime, and his days of being overlooked and discarded are well and truly behind him.
© Daniel Wegher, 2014
with thanks to Clovis Phillips.