Ben Arfa look a shadow of his former self, while his former team-mate, Karim Benzema, can do no wrong in Madrid.
By Howard Johnson in Paris
As former Lyon striker Karim Benzema sets out on his first league campaign in Spain as one of the new and much-lauded Galacticos at Real Madrid, spare a thought for his one-time teammate Hatem Ben Arfa.
As Benzema was knocking them in with apparent ease during Real’s pre-season and gaining plaudits galore, Ben Arfa was being ignominiously hauled off at half time by his manager Didier Deschamps during Olympique Marseilles’ Ligue 1 fixture away at Rennes. At the time Marseilles were losing 1-0 to a Jerome Leroy penalty and although they salvaged a draw thanks to a goal from Mamadou Niang, it was Ben Arfa’s unfortunate predicament that most caught the eye.
Just a year previously Ben Arfa had been at his mercurial and brilliant best as Marseilles put four goals past Rennes in the same stadium. The result that day was a 4-4 draw and the points were shared just as they were this time around. But it’s there that the similarities end.
Whereas in the first game Ben Arfa showed his full range of impressive skills and chipped in with a goal of his own, in the second his performance out on the right flank was frankly pathetic. Ben Arfa played like a shadow of his former self, unable to pass or cross to save his life and coach Deschamps really had no option than to withdraw him at the break and replace him with veteran striker Fernando Morientes. It was all rather humiliating for the 22 year old and provides an apposite contrast of fortunes with Benzema.
For many of France’s most knowledgeable football experts it was originally Ben Arfa rather than Benzema who was going to light up the world stage. When he first broke through at Lyon at the start of the 2004-05 campaign – in a team, remember, that featured the talents of Michael Essien, Mamadou Diarra, Florent Malouda and Eric Abidal – Ben Arfa seemed to have by far the greater all-round collection of footballing skills. His quick feet, a deceptively fierce shot for one so slight of frame and an impressive all-round game vision marked him out as the French shooting star, ahead of the supposedly more prosaic Benzema.
Perhaps we were somewhat blinded by Ben Arfa’s media-intriguing persona too. While Benzema seemed a little tongue-tied, boring even, under the glare of the camera lights, Ben Arfa was already a bit of a bad boy in waiting. His face was cocky and a wee bit sulky, he got into training ground spats with the likes of Sebastien Squillaci, and if he didn’t like what he was being asked to do out on the pitch he didn’t need asking twice before he was complaining vociferously and in public.
Eventually Lyon decided that Ben Arfa was more hassle than he was worth. And with Benzema suddenly hitting warp speed and becoming a leading light in the Lyon first team, young Hatem was shipped off to Marseilles in July of 2008.
The talk was of a marriage made in heaven, of a prodigal son heading to the only place where he would truly be understood, to a public that traditionally adored prodigious talent wrapped up in a fiery personality. This, surely, was a stage that was made for Ben Arfa. Well no, actually.
Under Head Coach Eric Gerets, a man who is not to be trifled with and who managed to put some discipline into the notoriously showbizzy OM, Ben Arfa found the going tough. Unable to show his undoubted talent with enough consistency to win over his Belgian boss, Ben Arfa dazzled too infrequently and was suddenly cast in the increasing shadow of the ever-improving Benzema, who was now recognised as very much the real deal and a player who was coveted by all of Europe’s top clubs.
The start of this new season was supposed to offer redemption to Ben Arfa. With Deschamps installed in the Marseilles hot seat the word was that the player was maturing, was determined to make the most of his considerable talents and was out to get back in the spotlight as a genuine rival to his one-time teammate Benzema.
Unfortunately for Ben Arfa, though, it seems that the wheels are already loosening and are in serious danger of coming right off in his attempt to reclaim his crown as the true crown prince of French football.
Just as Karim Benzema seems to have the stars within his grasp, Hatem Ben Arfa looks like he’ll have an almighty scrap on his hands to hang on to his superstar status at Marseilles. Only time will tell if he has the talent and the mental toughness to pull it off…