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Benitez: Keeping Nice in the hunt

Publish on 22/12/2018 at 10:00

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At 1m91, Walter Benitez - with his broad, muscular physique - takes up plenty of space in the Nice goal and this season opposition forwards have struggled to find a way past him. Interview…

The 25-year-old kept six straight clean sheets before finally conceding at the weekend in the 1-1 draw with Saint-Etienne and the Argentinean shot-stopper told The Ligue 1 Show on beInSPORTS: "It's nice. I don't think Nice have been on a run like this - six games without conceding -for a long time. That shows we've been working well on the training ground, with the goalkeeping coach Lionel Letizi. It's very positive, and it's good for me and the team."

In-form Nice have risen to seventh, despite the minor setback of the draw with Les Verts. Benitez said: "I was a bit disappointed during the match but then I put the record out of my mind. Above all, I was disappointed with the result and with our performance."

Luchador brought back in from the cold

Yet Benitez won't stew on that disappointment for long. Ever since his younger years in Chaco, the goalkeeper has been a ‘luchador', a fighter. After joining Nice in 2016, he had to show considerable patience, with local lad Yoan Cardinale refusing to give up his number 1 jersey. Benitez finally established himself under Lucien Favre, but he was relegated to the bench again by new coach Patrick Vieira at the start of this season.

"I didn't really know why I wasn't getting picked, but that's life when you're a goalkeeper. One of you plays and the other is on the bench. I've always stayed calm and I try to think about the next day, and I think about how I can show the coach that I'm ready to take my chance."

Vieira handed Benitez his chance in Week 4, away to Lyon, and the imposing Argentine duly took it. Nice had conceded six goals in their first three games, but their fortunes changed that day in Lyon with Benitez describing his display as one of his best in Nice colours. He made ten saves - a Ligue 1 record - and Nice won 1-0, Vieira's first win in charge.

Lyon heroics

Benitez recalled: "The save I made from (Nabil) Fekir's header, and then with my foot, I think it was. That was really difficult. I think that was one of the best stops I've pulled off at Nice."

Second only to Alisson in the big leagues

Benitez boasts the second best save ratio in Europe this season, behind only Liverpool's Alisson Becker. The keeper's physical and mental strength can be attributed to a tough childhood back in Argentina.

"When I started at the academy in Quilmes I didn't have enough money. What my parents gave me each month wasn't enough to get me through the year. So I started to work in the restaurant at the training ground. I worked at weekends to have enough money to buy goalkeeping gloves and boots. I did a lot of barbecues and sold a lot of food.  My experience at Quilmes was tough but that's given me the strength and confidence to keep going when things are going well and even when things aren't going well, I try to keep working to go as far as I possibly can."

Chilavert and Neuer inspiration

Exceptional on his line and commanding off it, Benitez takes inspiration from other South American goalkeepers, and one European custodian: "I try to watch Neuer a lot because I really think he's one of the best in the world. I like Andujar, the Estudiantes goalkeeper, who is big and has a similar style to me. I didn't get to see Chilavert much but I've seen videos of him and I like what I see because he had a nasty streak. He's always involved and that's what I like in a goalkeeper. He's an example for me and I respect everything he did as a player."

The country that gave us Messi and Maradona may be best known for its attacking talents, but Benitez - who played for Argenina at youth level - hopes one day he'll have the chance to rub shoulders with the likes of Sergio Aguero in the national team.

Argentina dream

"To be able to wear the Argentina shirt is a dream of mine. I really hope to be called up one day because that's what I am working for. I try to do my best for Nice to show that I'm good enough for the national team. It would be a pleasure and a dream come true."