''I Could Still Play For Liverpool'' - What Has Become Of Christian Benteke?

The Belgian's career has hit a downward trajectory and he is struggling at Palace
09:00, 05 Oct 2019

He is a man who believes he could be partnering Mohamed Salah in Liverpool’s forward line but currently finds himself on the outside looking in at Crystal Palace.

Christian Benteke hasn’t had the most fulfilling of starts to the season, with Eagles boss Roy Hodgson having used him only sporadically so far in 2019/20. Most infuriatingly for the Belgian, he was reduced to a watching brief last Saturday against Norwich City.

One could easily forget that Benteke was gracing the Liverpool attack not so long ago, and when asked by Sport Bible this week whether he could hold his own in their current front line alongside Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane, the striker was unequivocal:

Yeah. It’s easy to say now because I play for Palace and they play for Liverpool, but when you train every day with the same players and the manager believes in you, it’s easier. People will say I’m making excuses, but everyone knows the club was going through a transition when I was there.

What Benteke is going through now at Palace is something very different. His move to Selhurst Park was intended to reinvigorate him after a disappointing year at Liverpool and it initially appeared to have done exactly that. He scored 15 league goals in his first season with Palace, embracing the opportunity to be heavily relied upon once more.

Benteke started every single game in that debut campaign following his £27 million transfer and was the undoubted focal point of the team. It was the same status he’d enjoyed at Aston Villa, and which had succeeded in bringing the best out of him. Benteke even scored both goals in a 2-1 win over Liverpool to demonstrate that he may have been cast aside too soon by the Merseyside giants.

After Philippe Coutinho’s free-kick had given the home side the lead, Benteke turned home Yohan Cabaye’s cross in front of the Kop then stooped to head in the winner late on. It was a day of vindication and a rebuke to Jurgen Klopp, who had so often left him on the bench and then readily moved him on when the opportunity arose.

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Up until he was sold by Liverpool in August 2016, Benteke’s career had always been on a clear upward trajectory. He had proven himself in Belgium and then taken the Premier League by storm, scoring 42 goals in 89 appearances for an Aston Villa side short of craft and quality.

They created few chances but that didn’t matter because Benteke could carve them out himself. Although it now seems completely fanciful considering what has transpired over the last two years, his performances at Villa drew justifiable comparisons to Didier Drogba. 

A complete line-leading striker, he was bullish and direct. He bulldozed through defences and was capable of finding the net with either placement or power. In theory he still has everything a modern-day number nine needs – strength, pace, technique, athleticism and heading ability – but things have gone badly wrong in recent times.

Benteke almost single-handedly kept a declining Villa in the Premier League and it’s no coincidence that they were finally relegated once he left. A £32.5m fee, the second highest in Liverpool’s history at that point, reflected the scale of his contribution and the ease with which he’d adapted to English football. But Brendan Rodgers didn’t survive long after that, and neither did Benteke.

Instead, it was a less-heralded arrival from Germany who outlasted them both and became the centrepiece of Jurgen Klopp’s new-look forward line. Roberto Firmino joined earlier that same summer as an attacking midfielder but has since come to perfect the false nine role, combining expertly with Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane.

His elevation came at Benteke’s expense and showed that Klopp was looking for more subtlety and clever link-up play from a centre-forward. Many felt that the decision to discard Benteke was hasty but the new manager’s approach has been more than vindicated over the last three years. 

It was a turning point for the Belgian striker, who had previously played with supreme confidence and belief in his own abilities. Some doubt was introduced, and suddenly there was a sense that he lacked something needed to compete at the very highest level. Perhaps his style was good enough for a middling side with an emphasis on direct, physical football, but not for one with grander ambitions.

The question marks that surrounded him were shrugged off to some extent in that first year at Palace, when he was back to doing what he does best. Then the slump set in. Since the start of the 2017/18 season, Benteke has scored just four goals in 56 games for the club.

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His struggles were put into sharp relief on Saturday by the form of his opposite number, Teemu Pukki. The Finnish striker was unable to score against Palace, who won 2-0 without the aid of Benteke, but he still has more goals in his first two months in the top flight than the former Liverpool man does in the last two years.

Injuries haven’t helped, and neither did a high-profile penalty miss in the last minute of a 2-2 draw with Bournemouth as he tried to cut short his developing drought. After seizing the ball from regular taker Luka Milivojevic, his tame effort was comfortably saved to the visible frustration of manager, teammates and supporters.

The selfishness of the act rankled and was a notable flashpoint during a difficult spell, as Roy Hodgson looked to address the poor start made under Frank de Boer and find a way of playing that maximised the impact of star man Wilfried Zaha. He was increasingly paired up front alongside Andros Townsend, creating a more dynamic counter-attacking style that was particularly effective away from home. Benteke fell from favour as a result.  

Even when Hodgson has gone with one out-and-out striker, he’s tended to prefer the tireless efforts and teamwork of Jordan Ayew. Even if his own goalscoring record leaves a lot to be desired, the Ghanaian is felt to suit their system much better. 

Completely drained of confidence, Benteke has looked increasingly clumsy and uninterested on the pitch. Accusations of laziness abound. Many Palace supporters have turned against him, although some continue to believe that if the team was designed to play to his strengths then he could still pose a serious threat.

Once devastatingly effective and a regular for Belgium, he missed out on their World Cup squad and hasn't been capped in over a year. The fact that there were once regular debates about who should start up front for them, Benteke or Romelu Lukaku, now seems barely credible.

At club level, while Palace pine for a striker with more goal threat, they already have one in their ranks who's lost his way to an alarming degree. On his day there are few strikers better suited to the Premier League than Benteke, but his day hasn't come round anywhere near often enough in the last two years.

He’s out of contract at the end of the season, and discussions are ongoing about an extension to protect what remains of his value and prevent him from leaving on a free next summer. At 28, and still with something to offer, a fresh start at a new club would surely be best for all concerned.

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