Tuesday turned out to be quite a day for Leandro Benitez. The Argentinian playmaker scored both Estudiantes goals as they saw off Pohang Steelers 2-1 to advance to the final of the FIFA Club World Cup UAE 2009.
Benitez put his side on the road to victory on the stroke of half-time, sending a curling long-range free-kick into the six-yard box and looking on with glee as the bouncing ball deceived Steelers goalkeeper Shin Hwa-Yong on its way into the top corner. And after the restart he all but sealed the game when he ghosted in at the far post to slot home a loose ball.
“I can’t even remember having scored two goals in a game before,” the beaming Benitez told FIFA.com afterwards, while clutching his four-year-old son Bautista in his arms. “My family were in my mind, as were my friends and all the people who have helped me get this far. It was very special.”
“There are so many thoughts going through my head right now,” continued the man they call El Chino. “The most important thing, though, is that we got what we came for: a place in the final. We’ve achieved one objective and now we’re going for another.”
Despite a reputation for being a man of few words, the 28-year-old was more than happy to share his views on this occasion. “Getting the win is a weight off our minds, and not just because the pressure was on us to go through," he said. "We also didn’t want to let ourselves down or all the supporters who have made the journey here.”
Winning over the critics
Benitez served a long apprenticeship with Estudiantes, making his way up through all the youth and reserve sides before finally making his first-team debut in 2000. Yet, it was not until his return to La Plata in 2006, after three seasons on loan at Quilmes and then Olimpo, that he managed to hold down a regular starting place. But even though his finishing skills and pure technique were there for all to see, his commitment to the cause was questioned at times by the demanding Pincha faithful.
“I always said it would be twice as hard for me to be a success at Estudiantes because of the way I play,” he said in response to the criticism once directed at him. “But I’ve always given everything for the jersey, I’m playing well right now and I hope to stay on the path to success.”
Another outstanding performance in the final would certainly help him achieve that goal and perhaps even give him the opportunity to try his luck outside Argentina. “That’s something I’ve not even thought about,” he replied. “I’m a fan of the club, I always dreamed about playing for the first team and winning big trophies, and that’s what I’m doing now. If an offer comes in that’s good for everyone, then we’ll have to see, but that’s the last thing I’m thinking about right now.”
A vital cog in the side that won the Apertura 2006 and the Copa Libertadores earlier this year, Benitez is now aiming for his third title with Estudiantes. And no matter who they face in Saturday’s final, El Chino is adamant he and his team-mates will be fully focused.
“I don’t care who we get," he declared. "It’s a game of 90 minutes in which anything could happen. Whoever we come up against, the objective will still be the same.”