Sinai Says: Are Benayoun’s best days behind him?

Criticizing Yossi Benayoun is considered somewhat sacrilegious here in Israel. However, I can’t help but feel that this time he has got it wrong.

Benayoun 311 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Benayoun 311
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Criticizing Yossi Benayoun is considered somewhat sacrilegious here in Israel.
However, I can’t help but feel that this time he has got it wrong.
There is little doubt that the 31- year-old midfielder is among Israel’s greatest ever soccer players.
Such is Benayoun’s talent that sports fans in Israel have been tracking his progress since his early teens.
Unlike so many others, he has not only lived up to the exceptionally high expectations, but actually exceeded them.
He even gave his hometown of Dimona another claim to fame besides its neighboring nuclear reactor and high unemployment rate.
The only thing that seemed to match his performances on the field was his judgment off it, but if the early signs are anything to go by, he may well live to regret his choice to join Arsenal on a one-year loan deal from Chelsea hours before the August transfer window closed.
Benayoun was one of five players Arsenal brought aboard in the aftermath of the 8-2 thrashing by Manchester United on August 28. But while the likes of Per Mertesacker and Mikel Arteta have become key members of the team, the Israel captain has had to remain content with a substitute’s role.
A huge part of Benayoun’s success has been the choices he made during his career.
His decisions to use Maccabi Haifa as a stepping stone to Europe and to begin his continental career at small Spanish La Liga club Racing Santander have become the blueprint every Israeli player aspires to follow.
Benayoun never allowed short-term frustration to affect the course of the career he envisioned for himself, patiently and consistently improving his game in three seasons at Santander before breaking into the English Premier League with a move to West Ham United in 2005/06.
Benayoun spent two seasons in East London, and shortly after almost agreeing to a long-term contract extension in the summer of 2007, he jumped at an offer to join Liverpool.
He took a pay-cut from what West Ham was offering, and despite their reluctance, the Hammers eventually released him in a £5 million deal.
Despite having to get used to not being the focal point of his team for the first time in his career, Benayoun became an important player at Liverpool, making 48 appearances – including 27 in the starting lineup – and scoring 11 goals in his first season at the club.
Benayoun even managed to establish himself as a regular starter in the second half of his second season in Merseyside, an especially difficult task under fickle manager Rafa Benitez.
He scored crucial goals in the Champions League and Premier League, with his 82nd minute winner against Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu in the last 16 of the Champions League in February 2009 to forever remain one of the most memorable strikes by an Israeli player.
However, his relationship with Benitez soured during the 2009/10 campaign, with Benayoun claiming the Spaniard “never treated me with the respect I deserved.”
That led to his departure for Chelsea in July of last year, which seemed at the time as yet another amazing step up in his remarkable career.
But as things currently stand, that transfer could end up being looked upon as the beginning of the end.
Benayoun sightings have been few and far between since, with Yossi playing a peripheral role for the Blues even before an Achilles injury suffered in October sidelined him for six months.
He ended up making only seven league appearances for Chelsea, starting in just one match.
Matters got even worse when Andre Villas-Boas replaced Carlo Ancelotti as manager.
It quickly became apparent that the young Portuguese was not a big fan of the Israeli, leaving Benayoun to look elsewhere for playing time.
Serie A club Roma as well as Liverpool, Tottenham and Newcastle reportedly all showed interest, but Benayoun eventually elected to go to Arsenal.
The only reason Benayoun decided to leave Chelsea was due to a lack of minutes, but he achieved nothing by going to the Gunners.
Apparently, a phone call from Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger was what eventually convinced him to move to North London.
Maybe Wenger promised him plenty of action, but assuming he didn’t, Benayoun may have overestimated his abilities by exchanging a Chelsea shirt for an Arsenal one instead of moving to a smaller club.
Benayoun’s competitive nature is an important part of his success, but he should have realized that he is unlikely to get any considerable playing time at Arsenal.
It is an extraordinary feat to be part of three massive clubs of the likes of Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal.
But sadly, Benayoun has done little playing for the last two, wasting the final years of his prime before the inevitable decline.
Benayoun has started just three matches for Arsenal so far, two of them in the lowly regarded Carling Cup, which is proof enough of his importance, or lack of it, to Wenger’s squad.
He has made three appearances as a substitute in Arsenal’s seven league matches since he joined, and that is with the team still missing midfielders Jack Wilshere and Abou Diaby.
Nothing can detract from Benayoun’s astonishing rags-to-riches story, but the decision to go to Arsenal may have cost him his last chance to shine at the top level.
It has been almost two years since we last enjoyed Benayoun at his peak.
Of course, it is still possible he could all of the sudden become a key player for Wenger, prompting Arsenal to make his move from Chelsea permanent next summer.
However, for the time being, Israeli soccer fans are just hoping they will have another chance to see Benayoun at his best, something which is looking less and less likely with every passing day.
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