For the second straight season, Udinese is competing for a UEFA Champions League place despite not having very much money to spend. Their highest profile departure in 2011 was Alexis Sanchez, the Zebrette also lost Cristian Zapata. This required the members of the Udinese back line to step up their games, and Mehdi Benatia has done just that.
Benatia is a quintessential example of the Udinese transfer policy and how they've built a Champions League-quality squad on a small budget. He was purchased from Ligue 2 side Clermont, who he joined after coming up through the Marseille youth team, in 2009. He was loaned back to Clermont and spent another season in Ligue 2 before joining Udinese in Serie A.
After a solid first season with Udinese in 2010-11, Benatia is having the best season if his career at present and is one of the key contributors to Udinese's current third placed standing in Serie A. As the right central defender in Udinese's 3-5-1-1, he is responsible for keeping an eye on forwards and covering the right flank when Dusan Basta and/or Maurcio Isla gets caught too far up the pitch. His positioning and technical ability for a big defender are fantastic, and are just as key to his national team as his club team.
Morocco play a different formation than Udinese, though their style of football is relatively similar. Though he is a defender for both sides, the right central defender position in Udinese's three-man back line is much different than the right central defender position in Morocco's traditional back four. He will have more overall responsibility and less cover when it comes to accounting for opposing forwards, but will not have the same requirements when it comes to technical play and covering the flank.
Benatia and Morocco were very good in qualifying and most of this team has played together, so there is no reason to believe that he will have trouble adjusting to playing a different position with his national team. His defensive partner Badr El Kaddouri did not play particularly well during his time at Celtic in 2011, but has plenty of experience with Dynamo Kiev and the national team, and they make up one of the best central defense partnerships in Africa.
Morocco will be favorites to win their group, and if they do so, favorites to get to the semifinals where they would likely meet Cote D'Ivoire. The Lions of the Atlas are very strong in midfield and attack, so it's unlikely that there will be massive demands on Benatia until they hit that semifinal. Issam Jemaa of Tunisia could give him problems, but he could look dominant until he comes up against Didier Drogba.
National Team: Morocco
Club Team: Udinese (Italy)