Mehdi Benatia applauded Roma’s fans in the Curva Sud. For the most part, they applauded him back. But there was an undeniable awkwardness to the defender’s appearance at the club’s "Open Day" at the Stadio Olimpico on Tuesday, as speculation continued to mount over his future.
A number of clubs have been linked to Benatia this summer, but in recent days Bayern Munich have moved ahead of the pack. Their directors met with the player’s agent, Moussa Sissoko, on Monday, according to L’Equipe (in French), agreeing personal terms for a potential move. Italian journalist Gianluca Di Marzio reported on Thursday (in Italian) that Benatia had turned down an improved contract offer from Roma, worth €2.5 million per year.
It was too little, too late, from the Italian side. Benatia had signed a deal worth just €1.6 million per year when he joined the Giallorossi last summer, but told Gazzetta dello Sport (via whoscored.com) that he did so on the understanding that he would receive a substantial raise if they made it into the Champions League. Instead, “an unacceptable offer was made. I’ve heard it said I asked for €4m a year. I didn’t even ask for €3m.”
If Benatia is telling the truth, then Roma’s latest offer must at least come close to matching the sum that he requested in the first place. But the picture has been complicated in the meantime by Munich’s interest.
At 27 years old, Benatia is entering into what should be the best years of his career. And while he spoke in the same Gazzetta dello Sport interview about his enthusiasm for Roma’s “project” under Rudi Garcia, there is no denying the fact that he would stand a better chance of lifting Europe’s biggest trophies if playing for the German champions.
None of which puts his current club under any obligation to sell. Benatia can refuse to sign a new deal with Roma if he likes, but his existing contract already runs through to 2018—leaving the Giallorossi in a position of considerable bargaining strength. According to Di Marzio, they are holding out for a transfer fee of €40 million.
Or, to put things another way: The same amount that Munich paid to land Javi Martinez from Athletic Bilbao in 2012. No German team has ever spent more on an individual player.
Munich have refused to discuss the Benatia negotiations publicly, with club chairman Karl Heinz Rumenigge telling sport1.de (via Sky Sports) that doing so “could only make the player more expensive,” but it is easy to imagine how they might balk at such a fee. The Roma defender is three years older than Martinez, and unlikely to retain such a high resale value going forwards.
And yet Roma are also right to dig their heels in. They paid just €13.5 million to sign Benatia from Udinese last summer, but in the space of one season he proved that his value is substantially higher.
A Roma team that had been famously flimsy in 2012-13, conceding 56 goals, came to look very different with Benatia in the line-up. They gave up just one goal in their first 10 league games after he joined, winning all of them and going on to post 21 clean sheets by the end of the season.
Of course, that was not all down to the Moroccan. Garcia had transformed the mentality of the club, demanding levels of tactical discipline never seen under his predecessors Zdenek Zeman and Aurelio Andreazzoli. The signing of Kevin Strootman, furthermore, had greatly strengthened Roma’s midfield, the Dutchman combining with Daniele De Rossi to provide a solid shield in front of the defence.
But Benatia’s impact still must not be underestimated. Light on his feet despite an imposing 6'3'', 14st 8lbs frame, the defender often seemed to be impassable. Only nine times all season did he allow an opponent to dribble past him in Serie A, according to whoscored.com. He averaged 2.8 interceptions per game—the most of any player among the league’s top-three sides.
His assuredness was a great help to Leandro Castan, his partner in central defence, who had struggled at times during a tough first season with the club. But Benatia also proved himself useful at the other end, scoring five goals in 33 games.
Is it all enough to justify a €40 million price tag? I would argue that it is. Not because Paris Saint-Germain paid €62 million for David Luiz this summer—the French club’s transfer logic is a world into itself—but simply because of what Benatia means to Roma. Without him, they might not have made it into the Champions League.
That is a speculative comment to make. We will never know for sure what would have happened if any one player was removed from Roma’s side. But nobody at Benatia’s former club would underestimate his impact. Udinese finished fourth with him in 2011 and third in 2012, despite selling Alexis Sanchez in-between. A year later they were fifth, with Benatia missing half the games due to injury. Last season, after the defender left, they fell all the way to 13th.
Roma’s circumstances are different, their squad undeniably more robust. But the evidence of Tuesday’s "Open Day" was still enough to raise concerns. Although Benatia took part in the squad unveiling, a calf injury prevented him from taking part in the friendly against Fenerbahce which followed. Without him, Roma struggled to a 3-3 draw.
Losing the defender this close to the start of a new season would be a huge blow to Garcia's squad. Likewise, signing Benatia would provide a timely lift to a Munich team that just lost Martinez to torn knee ligaments. The price looks steep at first glance. But Benatia is worth the cost.