Each week on Football FanCast we will be celebrating those special breed who lit up the Premier League with their unique brand of utter genius. This time out we pay homage to an Algerian magician who gifted us glimpses of who he once was.
Ali Benarbia only made 33 Premier League appearances and though he offered glimpses of his bewitching sorcery the Algerian was, in truth, not overly influential throughout that short duration.
In his one and only season in the top flight for Manchester City in 2002/03 he was 34, hardly the most fortuitous circumstances for any player to find his feet in an immensely challenging environment after a career spent bossing Ligue 1 and the Championship, among players frankly not fit to kiss his laces.
So he largely struggled, burdened perhaps by the captain’s armband given to him by Kevin Keegan as he adjusted to the ferocious increase in application and the higher calibre of opposition. It should be noted however that the construct of ‘struggle’ has different levels. Benarbia was never poor. He was incapable of being poor. The scheming midfielder was merely good and occasionally ace.
This stark truth lends itself to more surprising truths. Nick Barmby – to pluck a name at random – has a better Premier League pedigree than the former Monaco and PSG star. Carlton Palmer contributed a much higher quantity of memorable moments. And these uncomfortable factoids might have you questioning why one of those pair isn’t being celebrated here, instead of the recipient. If you’re wondering this then you clearly never saw the great man play. And for that you are deserving of our sympathy.
For Benarbia was without question one of the most talented practitioners of beautiful football to grace our pitches in the modern era. And when you look above his standard you find only a handful of the very best, the cream of the crop. A Bergkamp here. A Cantona there, lounging on his throne. Henry and Scholes. Really, he was that special. A magician no less.
Having won the French Footballer of the Year award so recently he was a marquee signing for City as they regrouped after relegation and Keegan was delighted to lure this exceptional gem on a free, remembering how he’d single-handedly annihilated Newcastle for Monaco a few seasons earlier.
He had the rare qualities Keegan loved to build teams around and with Eyal Berkovic joining too, the Blues were expected to be a force to be reckoned with. From the player’s side a hero-worshipping of his new manager growing up swung it, as too allegedly did a plate of salmon served up by the club’s chef prior to talks.
From the off the playmaker shone. He twinkled. He schemed. He orchestrated. He was so far advanced of his peers it simply wasn’t fair; like Lionel Messi taking a year-long secondment in Barnsley. City racked up an astonishing 99 points that campaign and scored 108 league goals. They resided on another planet with Shaun Goater and Darren Huckerby prolific while feasting off the abundant chances carved out by Shaun Wright-Phillips, Berkovic and most of all an ageing maestro enjoying a gloriously late summer.
And it’s hard not to reminisce now and wonder what treats would have been served up had Bernarbia and Keegan paired up earlier. Only then blessings are counted, because we will always remember that year when the Championship was his playground and the season that followed, as tempered as it was where he was occasionally ace.
It is two days before Christmas in 2002 and City are trailing 3-1 at home to Spurs with only a minute left on the clock. To their credit the hosts continue to probe and attack – well this is a Keegan side after all – and the ball is worked well from the right across to their brilliant conductor. Benarbia is stationed just outside the area, so wide of proceedings a cross could reasonably be anticipated.
He doesn’t cross. He doesn’t hesitate. Instead, he wraps his gilded boot around the ball, curling it at pace past the sailing, beaten presence of Ian Walker. The finish is exquisite. It rewards those who have stayed on and reminds them of what they have. An artful technician revelling in every second of a team created to attack. The defeat hurts less and the festivities can begin.
Benarbia was a gift to Manchester City. He was a gift to us all.