Back in August, we spoke with Ahmad Benali as he looked forward to the new Serie B season with Crotone. However, a frustrating start to the campaign saw the Calabrians embroiled in a battle at the wrong end of the table. Tom Griffiths caught up with him following his January transfer to promotion-chasing Pisa...
The move to Pisa…
Crotone’s underwhleming start to the season culminated in the sacking of coach Francesco Modesto in October. As the news broke, the out-going coach called the players together for a meeting on the pitch for what was expected to be a chance to say goodbye to the coach – but that wasn’t what unfolded. “Modesto ripped into me in front of all my team-mates, picking me out as the captain, saying that I’d never believed in his ideas” Benali recalls. “I was totally taken aback as he hadn’t said anything like that to me before then”.
The reign of incoming coach Pasquale Marino lasted a mere seven games before, in customary Italian fashion, Modesto was re-appointed to his old role. Clearly conscious of what had taken place on the training pitch, on his return, Modesto sought to bury the hatchet with his captain. “I was totally honest with him. I told him that I wasn’t happy – he’d tried to humiliate me. Nevertheless, I told him I would be willing to work with him again”. But that wasn’t the end of it for Benali, “the next day, he came in and told me he didn’t want me around the first-team”.
From early December, Benali and another senior professional Salvatore Molina were frozen out of the first team picture and made to train in isolation. This meant coming into the training ground after everyone else had gone home, sometimes in the hours of darkness and devising his own training plan. “They tried to make life very difficult for me, but from that moment, I was completely focused on keeping myself fit and being physically ready for the next challenge”.
The January transfer window offered a chink of light for the ostracised pair, with Molina securing a move to Monza early in the month. Italian news outlets variously identified Pisa, Brescia, Parma and Vicenza as potential destinations for Benali. “There was quite a bit of interest, but I left that to my agent and asked him to ring me when there was a concrete offer on the table”.
“Frustratingly, Crotone turned down Pisa’s first offer. They were trying to spark a bidding war with other clubs”. As the closure of the transfer window beckoned, Benali made a high-stakes move when he told Crotone he would only sign for Pisa. If Crotone failed to relent, Benali would have been stuck in Calabria for the remainder of the season – something that was not in the interests of either club or player. With just a few days of the transfer window remaining, the hard-ball approach paid dividends as Crotone backed down and Benali signed for Pisa.Embed from Getty Images
Adapting to a new challenge…
Manchester-born Benali was one of several January arrivals at Pisa as they looked to fortify their promotion bid. Patience was needed as coach Luca D’Angelo gradually introduced his new charges to the first-team fray.
“Mentally, the transition from Crotone to Pisa was easy for me. I’ve been part of promotion-challenging teams many times before, so I knew what to expect and felt I was coming back into my comfort zone”. However, there was a bigger challenge for Benali to overcome on the physical side, “I’d been working hard to stay fit, but I hadn’t played a match for 7 or 8 weeks. You just can’t replicate the match situations – the turning, the change of pace – when you’re training alone. D’Angelo was great, giving me 20 minutes here and there initially to get me back up to speed.”
Several of Serie B’s promotion-chasing teams suffered a mild hangover following the winter break. Pisa were no exception, winning only one of their first six matches after Christmas. By the time Crotone travelled to Pisa at the beginning of February it had become imperative that I Nerazzurri returned to winning ways. Benali was handed a starting berth for this highly-charged match.
Benali put to one side any ill will going into the match. “Of course, there’s some hostility and little things like people not wanting to shake hands, but I was completely focused on the new challenge with Pisa”. The Libyan international did his talking on the pitch with a goal and an assist against his former employers. More pertinently than the three points that afternoon, the hard-fought match marked a turning point for Pisa’s fortunes.
A tight promotion race…
Serie B is witnessing a promotion contest for the ages, with just five points separating the top five teams. During the last round of matches, the top spot changed hands three times in a single day owing to staggered kick-off times. “It’s incredibly tight. By this time of year, one or two teams are usually beginning to pull away”, Benali reflects.
The composition of Serie B’s leading pack has diverged from what most pundits predicted at the beginning of the season. Few were talking about Cremonese as serious promotion contenders, and Ascoli (currently in the play-off places) were widely tipped for relegation. Conversely, the expensively-assembled squad of Parma – pre-season favourites for many – have found life difficult in the second tier.
Benali repeats a mantra that he used when we spoke back in August “Consistency is key, the teams that make the fewest errors will get promoted. Pisa have got a few games against their promotion rivals, but these are exactly the games that we’ve tended to do well in”.
Settling into Tuscan life…
Benali’s career in Italy has now spanned five different clubs, encompassing all points North, South and East, but this is his first time in Tuscany and the Tyrrhenian seaboard. “The people are very friendly and I really like what I’ve seen so far. I haven’t had much opportunity to explore yet as we’ve been playing twice a week since I moved”. Benali has settled into an apartment just a stone’s throw from the Pisa’s most famous landmark. “The family have settled in really well and that allows me to focus on my football”.
There has been much debate about Italy’s talent pipeline following the Azzurri’s failure to qualify for this year’s World Cup. Historically, Italian coaches have prized experience over youth. If nothing else, Benali sees a good business argument for change, “the finances in Italian football mean that nearly every club needs to sell to survive, so it makes sense to try and develop younger players”. He does see some teams getting this right, “you look at Sassuolo; they’ve taken younger players, given them first-team opportunities and then sold them on for a profit. They’ve done it consistently and that’s how they stay competitive”.
Closer to home, Benali has been impressed with his new Pisa team-mate, Italy under-21 forward Lorenzo Lucca. The powerfully-built striker spent 18 months serving his apprenticeship with Palermo at Serie D and C level before signing for Pisa last summer for €2.5 million. “He’s got all the attributes to succeed; he’s strong, fast, he can hold the ball up and he can finish. He’s potentially very well suited to the Premier League”.Embed from Getty Images
A word on Junior Messias…
Benali’s former Crotone team-mate Junior Messias has enjoyed a meteoric rise from the amateur ranks to scoring a winning goal in the Champions League. Come May, the AC Milan attacker could potentially have a scudetto to his name. And all this at the age of 30.
The Brazilian signed for Crotone in 2019 from Serie C Gozzano. Benali recalls, “I was told we’d signed a 28-year-old from Serie C. None of us had heard of him! But then we saw him in the first training session and straight away you could see how good he was”. Messias was instrumental in helping Crotone to win promotion to Serie A in 2019/20. “He could win games for us single-handedly. We’d be on the back foot away from home, but he was always capable of going past one, two players, freeing someone else up or making space for a shot”.
Was he surprised by Messias’ impact at Milan? “Physically and technically, I had no doubts at all. I’d seen him play against top defenders – Hernandez, Bonucci and Koulibaly – and get the better of them” Benali says. “But when any player goes to a top club there’s always that uncertainty about whether they can make the transition mentally. He’s answered that question!”.Embed from Getty Images
A huge thanks to Ahmad for taking the time to speak to us!