Benjelloun desperate to help secure first shot at European football

HAVING shown his liking for cup football by scoring eight goals over six starts for Hibernian in two knock-out competitions, Abdessalam Benjelloun wants to help the Easter Road club reach the Tennent's Scottish Cup final tonight so he can experience European football for the first time next season.

After finalists Celtic clinched the SPL title at Rugby Park on Sunday and booked a place in the Champions League, the winners of this evening's semi-final replay between Hibs and Dunfermline at Hampden are guaranteed a berth in the UEFA Cup, whatever the outcome of the showpiece on 26 May.

"It's a great incentive for all the players to know there's an opportunity to play in the UEFA Cup," said Benji yesterday. "The winners will go and play against Celtic in the final. I think there will be a greater sense of confidence for that team because even if you lose in the final against top opponents, you still get to play in the UEFA Cup. And if you win, you'll be remembered as a big team."

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Having spent 16 months at Easter Road and progressed from handy substitute - he came off the bench to score the winning goal against Hearts a year ago - to the role of main striker, the two-footed forward has contributed 14 goals in all for Hibs this season.

The 22-year-old has already demonstrated he feels at home in the national stadium by scoring twice in the 5-1 demolition of Kilmarnock in the CIS Insurance Cup final. Since Steven Fletcher and Benjelloun have notched 24 goals between them this term, it seems likely John Collins will invite this pair to deliver the firepower against Dunfermline required to ease the club into the final.

With Damon Gray and Dean Shiels, goalscorers against Aberdeen at Pittodrie on Saturday, also available to offer alternatives up front, it would be surprising if Hibs drew a blank against Dunfermline for the third consecutive match in as many weeks. After losing 1-0 at East End Park and drawing 0-0 at Hampden, Benjelloun doesn't expect Hibs to slip up against the Fifers this time.

The Moroccan hoped his late volley would have ended Dunfermline's interest last week until the effort was cleared on the line by Soulemayne Bamba. "Sometimes you have bad luck in football, sometimes good, and what we lacked in the original semi-final against Dunfermline was the final touch to get us a goal," he recalled. "Now, though, the confidence in our squad is high again. We know what's at stake and that if we want to play in the UEFA Cup next season, we must win.

"The previous tie was a very hard one for us because Dunfermline went into the match feeling positive after beating us in the SPL the week before. For me, Dunfermline are a very good side. I don't think either the weather or the pitch suited us particularly the last time, so this time we hope conditions are better and we can take the chance."

Brought to Edinburgh from Maghreb Fes in Morocco by Tony Mowbray, Benjelloun says European football was far from uppermost in his mind when he signed for Hibs. "No, that wasn't my ambition, but of course I am very happy with the idea of playing in the UEFA Cup. Every player would want that, not just me.

"I haven't played at such a high level before, though I have played in the Arabic Cup which involves teams from Morocco, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the Emirates. If you finish third in your league, you get to play in that tournament."

Having waved the Moroccan flag with his compatriot Merouane Zemama during the celebrations at Hampden after the CIS win over Kilmarnock, Benji has greatly increased the profile of Hibernian in this north African country.

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In conversation, a smile is never far from the young forward's face and he was elated by the attention paid in Morocco to his feats with Hibs. "All the newspapers at home now write about me and Merouane after seeing what we did in the final against Kilmarnock. They even showed 15 minutes of the final on TV in Morocco."

In his first full season in Scottish football, Benjelloun reckons Hibs' followers have still to see more from him. "I don't think I'm 100 per cent yet," he said. "We changed managers this season, John Collins came in, and I think you'll see the best of me next year."

Adjusting to the high tempo of Scottish football and performing on muddy pitches has taken a toll on the Moroccan. But he feels he's becoming more of a Scottish-style of player and believes a pre-season under the demanding eyes of the manager will improve both his stamina and strength.

"Before then, though, the chance to play in Scottish Cup final would be the biggest game of my career so far. I know that it's been 105 years since Hibs won this trophy. So we couldn't face a greater challenge."