Tottenham’s midfield rookie takes time out from Algeria’s quest for Africa Cup of Nations glory to speak to Sam Crocker and Jonny Singer about his new club manager, his nation’s AFCON hopes and Spurs’ Champions League push…
What a difference 12 months can make. Little over a year ago, Nabil Bentaleb started his first senior league match – Tottenham Hotspur’s 2-0 victory over Crystal Palace.
This month, having sealed his place as a first team regular with the Premier League outfit, he attempts to cement his status as a genuine international star.
Rejected by the academy of hometown club Lille at 15, Bentaleb eventually found his way – via short spells with Dunkerque and Belgian club Mouscron – to England. There, in January 2012, he was snapped up by Tottenham after a short trial at Birmingham City.
Having been speedily elevated into the first team squad by Tim Sherwood, he has seemingly adapted with ease, and is now determined to help Spurs challenge for European football.
“We know we have a good opportunity to get in the Champions League and we have to keep going,” said Bentaleb, who will miss at least the next two matches while away with his native Algeria at the Africa Cup of Nations in Equatorial Guinea.
Graduating with honours
While Sherwood – another victim of chairman Daniel Levy’s itchy trigger finger – is no longer in the hotseat at White Hart Lane, his replacement Mauricio Pochettino has helped Bentaleb reach new heights.
As Southampton manager, the Argentinian was praised for successfully blending intelligent signings with an array of talent from the youth ranks, a recipe that produced a creditable eighth place finish for the Saints last term.
Developing youth players is obviously important to Pochettino, who, like his former pupils Calum Chambers and Luke Shaw, left St Mary’s last summer.
I work hard in training and he trusts me. It’s going very well. I’m hungry to learn and he’s teaching me every day
While Southampton don’t currently appear to be reeling from their summer losses, Bentaleb believes he and Spurs can continue to gain from the arrival of Pochettino.
“I work hard in training and he trusts me,” says Bentaleb. “He gave me the chance. It’s going very well. I’m hungry to learn and he’s teaching me every day.”
A particular highlight for Spurs fans this season has been the partnership between Bentaleb and Ryan Mason.
A rare example of a Premier League midfield pairing who have both come out of their club’s own academy, the duo are keeping bigger-name players like Paulinho and Etienne Capoue out of the team.
“The partnership is going very well. We played a few games in the development squad together and I think that really helped us. We know each other well and we’re both hungry for the wins,” the 20-year-old explains.
“We don’t leave anything on the pitch each time we step out onto it, and I think we have the right mentality to play in the Premier League.”
From London to Mongomo
But where Bentaleb is right now is a far cry from the hustle and bustle of London and the Premier League. Algeria are based in the tiny town of Mongomo in Equatorial Guinea for the Africa Cup of Nations, where he has played every minute thus far in his country’s pursuit of continental glory.
Reports have suggested there have been scenes of chaos at team hotels elsewhere in the country, but Bentaleb seems very relaxed about the facilities he and his international team-mates have found themselves in, showing a great awareness of the differences between European and African football.
“We know Africa is a different world from Europe and we were ready for this. We went to Malawi and Ethiopia and saw how it was – it wasn’t the best pitch, not like the Premier League where every pitch is nice.
“We knew this and we had a few games to prepare ourselves. I think we’ve proved what we’ve got in this competition really well.
“The Federation in Algeria is taking care of us – we have the best hotel and facilities to be in the right condition for the competition. We have a training pitch 40 minutes away, but we have another one five minutes away, so it’s no problem.”
Bentaleb played three of his country’s four games at the World Cup last summer and is now an established member of the squad, commanding the midfield in the 3-1 win over South Africa before being shunted out to an unfamiliar left wing role in the 1-0 defeat to Ghana.
We know each other and we know the quality we have in this team, and the most important thing we have to do is stay focussed and fight for each other all the time
Despite this setback, he believes the mental strength in the Algeria squad will be enough to see them through to the knockout stages.
“Everything is in the head,” he said. “When you keep believing and keep trusting your team-mates, you keep playing strong. We know each other and we know the quality we have in this team, and the most important thing we have to do is stay focussed and fight for each other all the time”.
But Spurs fans need not worry, he’s not forgetting the boys back home – even managing to catch their last-gasp win over Sunderland.
“Yeah, I watched it, and it was a really good game, really exciting with Christian Eriksen scoring again. I wish the best for us this season. Of course we’re keeping in touch.”
Bentaleb won’t be too keen on a speedy return, with Algeria chasing their first Cup of Nations title since 1990, but when he does make his way back to north London, he’ll hope fellow academy graduates Harry Kane and Mason have kept his side in the hunt for the Champions League.