Francesco Totti secured most of the headlines when Real Madrid met AS Roma in the International Champions Cup at the end of July. The veteran playmaker scored the only goal of the game as the Serie A runners-up beat the European champions in the Cotton Bowl.
Another Roma star was worthy of high praise, however, following a typically outstanding performance.
Joseph Zucker, summarising the match for Bleacher Report, had this to say about the defender’s showing: “In general, the 27-year-old Moroccan international was a rock at the back for Roma, often stepping in front of Madrid through balls.”
He also picked out two key moments when the North African made a pertinent contribution:
“Bale got in behind the Roma defence [sic] in the 20th minute. Lucas Vazquez delivered a dangerous ball into the box for the Madrid winger, but Mehdi Benatia made a last-ditch tackle to eliminate the threat."
“Benatia made another great play in the 43rd minute, clearing the danger after Vazquez's shot was saved and Pepe tried to pounce on the rebound.”
Similarly, the Eurosport match report named Benatia as the Man of the Match, accompanying their award with the following qualifier:
Not hard to see why he is one of the most wanted defenders in Europe and why Roma have tried so badly to keep him this summer. Headed everything away today and didn’t give any of the Real Madrid attackers time or space when they got near him. A class act.
If Real Madrid weren’t interested in signing the defender before the match, their curiosity surely will have been piqued during it. The Spanish side’s stars were unable to breach Roma’s resolute backline, while Benatia was the Man of the Match according to Zucker, who awarded him an "A" grade.
In truth, the Moroccan defender has mainly been linked with a move to the Premier League during the summer. Both Manchester City and Chelsea, per talkSPORT, have targeted the centre-back during the window, but neither have been successful as yet.
Jose Mourinho’s interest appears to have cooled, whereas the Citizens’ decision to recruit Eliaquim Mangala—Simon Jones of the Daily Mail claims the transfer is imminent— would suggest that they no longer have an immediate need for the stopper.
It could be that both were deterred by Roma’s unswerving conviction that the Morocco international would not be departing the club.
Rudi Garcia, the Giallorossi boss, had this to say about the defender’s potential departure, as reported by Martin Macdonald of Goal.com: "Benatia is under contract with Roma and will play with Roma. The club talks with all the players, not just with him. Benatia will remain in Rome."
Similarly, the defender himself has thrown water on reports linking him with a move away from the Stadio Olimpico, as reported by talkSPORT.
However, Real Madrid (the reigning European Champions, let us not forget) have the kind of aura that can make a mirage of such comments. They have the kind of status that can make even the most loyal player endure a bout of wanderlust, and the kind of allure that can make even the most pragmatic of men dream of existing on another plain.
When Real want their man, they invariably tend to get him.
And reports suggest they’ve targeted Benatia.
A fee of between €35 million to €40 million has been mooted, but Il Tempo (via Inside Futbol) have acknowledged that Carlo Ancelotti is particularly interested in acquiring the Moroccan, particularly if Pepe moves to AS Monaco.
In truth, it’s easy to see why the Merengues would be interested in Benatia. Indeed, his showing against Real was indicative of the marvellous form that he has demonstrated for some time now.
Former USA international Janusz Michallik commented during the match that Benatia was already demonstrating the superb form that characterised his excellent showings with Roma last season:
Benatia in mid season form.— Janusz Michallik (@JanuszESPN) July 30, 2014
Julian De Martinis of ESPN FC also acknowledged the regularity of the defender’s excellence:
The MVP of course has to be Benatia, who never plays at less than 100%. He was everywhere and helped Florenzi immensely.— Julian of Martinis (@JulianDM11) July 30, 2014
He’s right to pick up on the former Udinese man’s interceptions. According to WhoScored.com, Benatia was in Serie A’s top 20 for both interceptions and clearances for the 2013-14 season. It was little wonder that, with the Moroccan rock at the back, Roma conceded only 25 goals last season, while Benatia helped the capital club to a remarkable 21 clean sheets.
Benatia has the composure, the presence and the resiliency to set him apart from the vast majority of defenders in the world game.
At the back end of 2013, the Guardian named the defender among the top 100 players of the year; he has only gone from strength to strength since then and can rightly be considered among the world’s finest in his position.
At only 27, Benatia is still yet to peak. Should they purchase him now, Real can expect four or five years of excellent service. A Benatia-Raphael Varane centre-back pairing would provide the bedrock the club need to maintain the European success they have reignited this season for years to come.
However, despite Benatia’s undoubted quality, there are two caveats that Ancelotti might need to consider before investing in the centre-back.
First of all, Benatia has no Champions League experience. Should he replace Pepe, for example, Real Madrid would be sacrificing a great deal of top-level nous in an incredibly crucial area of the pitch.
While talented, a defensive triangle of Keylor Navas, Varane and Mehdi Benatia, for example, might struggle to defend the club’s continental crown in the business end of the Champions League.
Secondly, there is the issue of the Africa Cup of Nations.
Beginning on January 17, the biennial continental championship kicks off in Morocco. Fitness permitting, Benatia will be there.
The hosts have the personnel and will likely enjoy the conditions to go far in the tournament and, at best, Real should expect to be without their stopper for over a month.
As we have seen in the past, with Kwadwo Asamoah among others, African players returning from continental duty can endure a hangover when returning to domestic competition.
Could Real afford to risk this with a player who would likely play such a crucial role in the team?
It’s hard to doubt Benatia’s class, particularly on the evidence of last season and his consistent performances in Italy.
However, it remains to be seen whether he would be the ideal acquisition for the European champions at this point in time particularly if, as expected, Real expect Benatia to be the bedrock of their backline.