‘He could nutmeg a mermaid’: the rise of Brentford’s Saïd Benrahma | Ben Fisher | Football

Be it with backheels, rainbow flicks or making the opposition look silly, few players outside the Premier League have made a bigger impression than Saïd Benrahma in the past couple of seasons. The Brentford winger boasts an endless box of tricks but he is more than just easy on the eye – he is approaching double figures in assists after equalling last season’s goal tally of 11 with eight Championship games to play. More often than not, his coup de grâce is sliding the ball through the legs of dazed defenders. “He could nutmeg a mermaid,” said Sam Saunders, the Brentford B assistant coach.

The buzz around Benrahma is growing and Friday’s game at home to West Bromwich Albion brings another opportunity to impress after he scored the opening goal in victory at Fulham last weekend. In February Middlesbrough’s Lewis Wing was left hopping in frustration after being on the receiving end of a double nutmeg and, given Benrahma’s palette of pirouettes and twirls, it is perhaps no surprise he counts Ronaldinho and Hatem Ben Arfa, with whom he played at Nice, as idols.

Chelsea are among those taking a keen interest in his progress. Last summer Aston Villa, whose manager, Dean Smith, worked with Benrahma at Brentford in the player’s first season in England, had a bid of about £15m rejected, with the Bees unwilling to sell both him and Neal Maupay, who joined Brighton for £20m.

Benrahma was born in Aïn Témouchent, an Algerian resort on the Mediterranean popular with holidaymakers, but grew up inland in Bel Abbès, a city with a rich military history once home to the French Foreign Legion. He moved to France with his parents at the age of 11, settling in the suburbs of Toulouse, where he played for fifth-tier Colomiers, for whom his performances for the under-19s, including at a tournament in Barcelona, attracted interest from Monaco, Bordeaux and Nice. He joined Nice, making his debut as an 18-year-old under Claude Puel, who promoted him from the reserves.

“I thank him [Puel] every day,” Benrahma said in an interview with Nice-Matin in November. “It took me a while to absorb everything. The professional world was unknown to me. For that game, I only had moulds in my bag, not metal studs but the pitch was quite slippery so I couldn’t play with my boots. So [former Nice striker Alexy] Bosetti gave me his boots but they didn’t fit so well. In fact, maybe I should have kept his boots to be successful at Nice!”

Ankle injuries and the arrival of Lucien Favre – “we didn’t understand each other” – halted his progress and a series of loans followed: to Angers and then Gazélec Ajaccio of Ligue 2, where he came to the attention of Brendan MacFarlane, Brentford’s lead scout in France. His flair and ability to eliminate players in one-against-one situations stood out against Bourg-en-Bresse Péronnas, against whom he scored twice and celebrated with his mother, and then came a fruitful spell at second-tier Châteauroux.

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Two years ago he joined Brentford from Nice for £2.7m, 12 months after Maupay made a similar move from Saint-Étienne for £1.6m after impressing on loan at Ligue 2 Brest. It is a well-trodden path and Bryan Mbeumo, a 20-year-old winger who has scored 14 goals in his first season in England after joining from Troyes for a record fee last summer, is the latest to make the transition look remarkably easy.

For Benrahma, the physicality of the Championship took some getting used to – he succumbed to cramp in his first couple of matches – but he has improved his fitness and discipline, honing his tactical awareness and getting up to speed with the demands of the head coach Thomas Frank’s counter-pressing, notably the importance of tracking back. “It took me two months to adapt, to not suffer with asphyxia for the whole game,” he said. “I was quite shocked when I started; the pace [in France] isn’t really the same.”

Benrahma, Mbeumo and Watkins



Brentford’s ‘BMW’ striking trio – Ollie Watkins, Saïd Benrahma and Bryan Mbeumo. Photograph: Paul Dennis/TGS Photo/Shutterstock

He did not speak English on arrival and credits Maupay with a key role in his rise, particularly in helping him settle. He lives with his mother and has struck up a friendship with an Algerian chef at the training ground. Incidentally, his first professional career start came at Griffin Park six years ago, for Nice in a pre-season friendly defeat, a game in which Maupay scored. “We would find each other on the pitch with our eyes closed. I have known Neal since Nice but we were not so close then. He took care of me as soon as I arrived here and was essential to my integration. I wasn’t expecting him to make that much effort for me. He became my friend, my brother.”

These days Benrahma is one-third of Brentford’s ‘“BMW” attack alongside Mbeumo and Ollie Watkins, who has led the line impeccably in the No 9 role vacated by Maupay. Algeria is enjoying a boom of talented players as a result of investment into infrastructure, namely a national technical centre on the outskirts of Algiers, and Benrahma, who has three caps, has inevitably drawn comparisons to their captain, Riyad Mahrez, the Manchester City winger who provides an obvious source of inspiration given his journey since leaving Le Havre of Ligue 2 six years ago.

Benrahma, too, seems destined for the Premier League and, just like Mahrez, trying to stop him is a thankless task, as Henrik Dalsgaard, the Brentford defender, can vouch. “He’s such a tricky player, you think you’ve got him locked in the corner and then, all of a sudden, he’s out,” he said.

Talking points

Who will make a late dash for the play-offs? A vibrant Derby side head into the weekend in mid-table but three points off sixth-placed Preston, whom they visit next Wednesday. Louie Sibley’s stunning hat-trick on his second Championship start helped them to victory over Millwall, who remain among a clutch of seven play-off-chasing teams separated by three points. Before then, Preston take on Cardiff, who returned with an impressive win over Leeds. “I was pumped up for the game to beat Marcelo Bielsa, because he’s the man,” said Cardiff’s manager, Neil Harris. “It is only one game and we want to build on that.”

Millwall v Derby



Derby’s hat-trick hero Louie Sibley in action during their win at Millwall. Photograph: Andrew Redington/Getty Images

Is the great escape on for Barnsley? Gerhard Struber’s side remain four points adrift of safety but have won four of their past six matches and host Millwall and Blackburn inside the next five days. Wigan, too, are seemingly heading in the right direction after one defeat in 10 matches, a run that includes five successive clean sheets. Middlesbrough travel to fellow strugglers Stoke on Saturday having acted on their dreadful form by appointing Neil Warnock, and things do not get easier for Hull, who dropped into the relegation zone having last week banned the Hull Daily Mail owing to “negative coverage”.

Northampton will face Exeter in the League Two play-off final on Monday after footage of Arsenal’s title win in 1989 helped Keith Curle’s side complete an extraordinary comeback at Cheltenham. “We showed the players the [89] documentary,” he said. “It resonated with me and I wanted to pass that on to the players that if you believe, something can happen.”




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