Mehdi Benatia still feels a certain fondness towards Roma. He left in acrimonious circumstances in 2014, accusing the Giallorossi of failing to deliver a promised pay rise after they qualified for the Champions League. And yet, he has spoken in interviews since about the close friends he retains in the capital.
None of which could dissuade him from celebrating gleefully after he gave Juventus an 18th-minute lead over Roma on Saturday. Italian audiences have grown accustomed to seeing players raise their hands in apology after scoring against former clubs; Benatia let rip with an imaginary machine gun.
He aimed at his own team’s supporters, yet it was the Giallorossi, once again, that he wounded. He had first deployed this celebration while playing for Roma, as a homage to Gabriel Batistuta whose goals propelled them to a Scudetto. For a brief moment, it appeared that Benatia himself might become a foundation stone in a new title-winning side.
Instead, four years later, he is helping Juventus to maintain their hegemony over Italian football. After giving them the lead over Roma, Benatia then did his part to protect it, putting in a mostly excellent defensive performance in what finished up as a 1-0 win.
He did almost throw away his good work deep into injury time. Giorgio Chiellini wanted to boot a bouncing ball into touch but Benatia ignored his team-mate’s shout and instead played hesitantly back towards Wojciech Szczęsny. Patrik Schick intercepted and ran clean through on goal, but shot too close to the keeper.
This was a game defined by exes and relationships gone awry: Szczęsny played on loan at Roma for two seasons and Schick was supposed to join Juventus in the summer, getting so far as to take publicity photos in club gear, only for that move to collapse following a medical.
Yet Benatia’s central role in Juve’s recent resurgence needs to be recognised. This was the champions’ eighth consecutive clean sheet across all competitions – a run taking in games against Barcelona, Napoli, Inter and now Roma. Benatia has missed just a single match in that stretch: the midweek Coppa Italia win over Genoa.
Contrast that with Chiellini, who has started just three out of eight, while Mattia De Sciglio and Kwadwo Asamoah have alternated with Stephan Lichtsteiner and Alex Sandro at the full-back positions. There has even been change between the sticks, Szczęsny stepping in after Gigi Buffon was injured.
Amidst constant turnover, Benatia has offered a reference point: imposing himself on games with force and fury. The stats show that he wins more headers than any of his team-mates, and cuts out more passes as well. Our eyes can tell us that he gets under the skin of opposing forwards, always one step ahead of them, always prepared to use his physicality to his advantage.
This is already his best season since he was at Roma. Benatia was sold to Bayern Munich in 2014, where club officials briefly persuaded him that semi-automatic celebrations were in poor taste. It felt like a moot point. Benatia could hardly chip in many goals for the Bavarian club when he was barely even getting on the pitch.
His two years at Bayern were undermined by constant injuries, and the picture was initially not much different after he joined Juventus last season. Knee and thigh problems slowed his integration and, with the BBC still in place, it was hard to crack the starting XI even when healthy.
Yet the Bianconeri still opted to make his loan move into a permanent switch this May and Leonardo Bonucci’s subsequent departure opened up a space in the side. So Benatia started, and struggled, as the champions lost to Lazio in the preseason Supercoppa; one week later, Daniele Rugani got the nod alongside Chiellini for the league opener against Cagliari.
There have been plenty of unexpected twists and turns in this season since, but it is hard to dispute now that the champions’ best performances have come with the Moroccan in the side. Beyond talent, Benatia possesses the sort of competitive hunger which has characterised Juventus’s recent successes, but which seemed to have gone missing in the early part of this campaign.
The real reason that Benatia loves to enjoy his goals so emphatically, after all, is because he knows how much it stings him to see opponents do the same. “I hate seeing the other guys celebrate,” he told reporters last month. “It doesn’t matter whether that’s at home or in Europe.”
In a separate interview, he reflected that Juventus’s “strength, for several years now, has been our attitude. We were missing that [at the start of this season], but we found it again.”
There is more to it than that, of course. Massimiliano Allegri has tweaked his tactics, relying more often on a 4-3-3 (or similar) which has permitted him to deploy Blaise Matuidi as additional protection for Miralem Pjanic in midfield. The manager has also been unafraid to drop his stars when their form dipped or he felt they needed a jolt – from Gonzalo Higuaín to Mario Mandzukic, Alex Sandro and now Paulo Dybala.
Juventus are, of course, in the fortunate position of having a squad deep enough to countenance such moves – a luxury that few of their rivals could afford. And they have caught some lucky breaks, too. Allegri’s team could have scored more goals against Roma, but they might also have been denied a win by Schick or Alessandro Florenzi, who saw a late effort come back off the crossbar which only just eluded him on the rebound.
It is also true that Juventus have not yet found their way back to the top of the table. They remain one point behind Napoli, who will celebrate Christmas in first place after twice coming from behind to beat Sampdoria.
Benatia had no hesitation, though, in agreeing with a reporter’s suggestion at the end of this game that Juventus remain the team to beat. As long as he continues to play as well as he has done lately, then even scoring a goal against them will be a significant task.
- One game after matching Diego Maradona as Napoli’s all-time leading scorer in Serie A, Marek Hamsik has now overtaken him. Between that, and the return of Lorenzo Insigne – who made his first start in three weeks, and marked it with a goal – this felt like a significant win over Sampdoria. Though it was Samp’s Gaston Ramirez who scored the goal of the day.
- Shockingly enough, a one-week training camp was not enough to cure all that ails Milan, and one imagines that the minimal contact permitted with family members at this time of year didn’t do wonders for morale, either. Fans at San Siro called on Gennaro Gattuso to “bust their [the players’] balls”, but it seems evident already that this approach is not working. The newspaper La Stampa reported on Sunday that Vincenzo Montella could return as manager if the team lose their Coppa Italia quarter-final against Inter on Wednesday.
- Inter themselves lost to Sassuolo, and for the first time it feels legitimate to ask if fans should be concerned. As against Udinese, the Nerazzurri dominated possession and had chances to score, but with Mauro Icardi missing a penalty, along with other presentable chances, this was a reminder of how reliant they are upon the Argentinian. He has scored 50% of the team’s league goals this season, and there is no natural alternative at No9. That said, hats off to Beppe Iachini, who has now steered Sassuolo to three consecutive wins – as many as they had taken from their previous 15 matches this season.
- And that’s it for today. Buon Natale ragazzi, and don’t forget that the winter break has been bumped back till January so this column will return on New Year’s Eve.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010
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