It has already been a sensational 2019 for Borussia Mönchengladbach left-back Ramy Bensebaini, and the Algeria international looks determined to round out his landmark year on a high after playing a starring role against Bayern Munich on Matchday 14.
The 24-year-old struck his first career brace as Gladbach beat the record champions for the fifth time since the start of 2015, in what was a far cry from the 5-1 drubbing they suffered on home soil in March. After heading in a Jonas Hofmann corner, Bensebaini converted an injury-time penalty – which he almost forgot to take – to send the Foals cantering back to the top of the table, a point ahead of RB Leipzig and now seven clear of seventh-placed Bayern.
"We're really happy," the match-winner told bundesliga.com afterwards. "It wasn't easy. But we're happy to have won, to have stayed solid throughout. After the last game the decision was made that Breel Embolo wouldn't take the next penalty, so I said I would do it, but I forgot that when the penalty was awarded! Tobias Sippel had to shout from the sidelines to remind me. Everyone's happy and we're still top of the table, so all is well."
Watch: The Ramy Bensebaini story
After a slow start, Bensebaini is gradually beginning to make his mark in Mönchengladbach. The 30-time Algeria international arrived with relatively little fanfare from Rennes this summer, with more column inches reserved for incoming strike duo Embolo and Marcus Thuram. He was an unused substitute for six of the first nine games of the season, although Gladbach did win both of the games he started, against Cologne and Augsburg.
He opened his Bundesliga account by putting Gladbach ahead in their 3-1 win over Werder Bremen on Matchday 11, demonstrating his usefulness in dead ball situations by nodding in an early Laszlo Benes free-kick. He also served notice of his full-blooded approach to defensive tasks, earning a second yellow card for a late sliding tackle on Leonardo Bittencourt.
After a one-match suspension against Union Berlin, Bensebaini was straight back into Marco Rose's starting line-up against Freiburg, where he had a hand in Thuram's opening goal and later cleared a Lucas Höler effort off the line. Gladbach won the game 4-2, before coming from behind to stun the champions and keep their dreams of a first Bundesliga title since 1977 very much alive. The Algerian is blooming into a genuine talisman under Rose: the Foals have now won all five games in which he has featured this term.
"For the time being everything's going well," Bensebaini told beIN SPORTS France. "We have a good squad and we all get on. We work hard every day in training to put in performances like this. We try to be solid at the back and clinical up front, and that's what we managed to do again today. Only conceding one goal against Bayern isn't a bad effort, but scoring two against them is even better!"
It has been a long journey from the streets of one of the world's most ancient cities, Constantine, to the bright lights of the ultra-modern Borussia-Park. As a boy, Bensebaini briefly tried his hand at karate before developing an all-consuming passion for football. To some extent, it was in the blood: after all, his grandfather Salah Hanchi was a former goalkeeper for the Algeria national team.
"I used to drive my parents and my grandparents crazy," he reminisced in France Football. "I was always playing football in the house, and I would break everything: vases, picture frames. They used to get fed up of me! I loved football so much. As soon as night fell, I would come home with my ball and keep playing inside."
At the age of just 12, despite his mother's reservations, Bensebaini moved 300 miles away from home to pursue his football dream in the capital, Algiers, joining the prestigious Jean-Marc Guillou academy at Paradou AC. Remarkably, he spent his first three years with the club playing bare-footed! "They wanted us to get a better feel and control of the ball," he explained to Ouest France.
In 2012, the up-and-coming prospect travelled to Europe for trials with six clubs, including Arsenal and Porto. After training with the Gunners for a month, he had done enough to convince manager Arsene Wenger to bring him on board – but unfortunately, his lack of a European passport prevented the deal from going through.
Watch: Bensebaini enjoyed highs and lows in the Matchday 11 win over Bremen
Bensebaini instead ended up at Belgian outfit Lierse SK, although he wouldn't stay long. Montpellier coach Rolland Courbis, who was in charge of USM Alger in 2012/13, had been alerted to the youngster's potential by one of his former players, Hocine El Orfi. In the summer of 2015, Bensebaini joined the Ligue 1 club, where he continued to progress.
"He needs to become more consistent with his performances," Courbis warned. "And it's vital that he keeps his concentration. It's almost impossible to have an argument with him off the pitch, but on the pitch he can be impulsive, he sometimes goes beyond the limits because he wants to win so badly. He reminds me a bit of Zinedine Zidane."
No player would object to being compared with the former France great, and especially not an Algerian; Zidane's parents emigrated from the Kabylie region of the country to Marseille in the 1950s. Like 'Zizou', Bensebaini began life as a playmaker, before shifting back to central midfield and then central defence – he once cited another Real Madrid legend, Sergio Ramos, as his footballing idol. It was in Montpellier that he was first deployed as a left-back, which would end up becoming his predominant position, but in Rennes that he really made his breakthrough.
"Montpellier is too lively, people go out too much," Bensebaini observed, when discussing his decision to trade the Mediterranean coast for Brittany. "Even if I was pretty serious, I maybe gave into temptation a bit too much. In the end, going to Rennes was a turning point. I told myself that I had to be more disciplined, to work harder. My lifestyle had to be spot on: sleeping well, recovering well. I feel much better now."
Bensebaini had spent his two seasons at Lierse and Montpellier on loan, but finally left Paradou for good when Christian Gourcuff brought him to Rennes in summer 2016. The French coach had already given the then 21-year-old his first call-up to the Algeria national team in late 2015, and had no doubt about his game-changing abilities.
"We have a player of real quality in Ramy," Gourcuff explained. "He has great technical skills and genuine footballing intelligence, as well as charisma and confidence. It's there for all to see. He's an excellent find."
Like in Mönchengladbach, Bensebaini had something of a slow start. During his first campaign he was constantly rotated between centre-back, left-back and defensive midfield, which made it a little tricky to find his rhythm. He had a couple of injury problems and got sent off in both games against Lyon, once for hauling down Alexandre Lacazette and once for deliberate handball. Rennes finished the season in a rather disappointing ninth place.
A change of both president and coach in November 2017 turned out to be just what the doctor ordered. With Sabri Lamouchi at the helm, Rennes stormed to a fifth-place finish, their best in over a decade, and qualified for the UEFA Europa League. Despite a few injury niggles Bensebaini continued to go from strength to strength, and soon emerged as the team's first-choice left-back.
The 2018/19 season turned out to be a memorable one indeed. Rennes enjoyed the best European run in their history, reaching the last 16 of the Europa League before being knocked out by eventual finalists Arsenal. And they finally conquered their first major trophy since 1971 by beating giants Paris Saint-Germain in the French Cup final. Bensebaini played the whole of the Stade de France showpiece, netting in the decisive penalty shoot-out. He also got some measure of revenge against Lyon by scoring the winning goal in the semi-final.
The dream 2019 continued as Bensebaini then helped Algeria to conquer their second Africa Cup of Nations title in Egypt, and their first since 1990. A regular throughout qualifying, he started six of the Fennecs' seven games at the tournament, setting up Sofiane Feghouli for the opener in the quarter-final win over Ivory Coast and playing all 90 minutes of the final as they edged Senegal 1-0.
"It's true that I'm enjoying a good period," Bensebaini acknowledged after the Bayern win. "But the French Cup and the Africa Cup of Nations are behind me now. Those memories will stay with me for life but I'm looking ahead. I'm here to play and to enjoy myself. I'm discovering a new league and I'm really happy to be here. I don't know how far can we go, but we'll do our best to finish as high as possible."
Talented, technically gifted and occasionally tempestuous, Bensebaini is certainly a player to watch in the coming months. Who knows, if things keep going as they have been, he could even be adding a Bundesliga winners' medal to his burgeoning trophy cabinet come May.