Return of the Beast
Strikers are a limitless source of fascination for football fans and Aston Villa fans are no different.
The roar of approval that greeted Christian Benteke’s return from injury last Saturday was testament to the Belgium striker’s star quality and importance to the team. Prior to the players return, Aston Villa manager Paul Lambert praised his young striker’s commitment in training, “I certainly know he loves football – you want to watch him train.”
In terms of Benteke’s potential, Lambert added, “He’s a young guy, has a long way to go in his career but when he is on his game he is certainly a top player.”
Christian Benteke is, in many ways, a prototypal modern number nine striker in a similar mould to Diego Costa. It is perhaps unsurprising therefore that Atletico Madrid were following Benteke closely until he ruptured his achilles tendon in April of this year. At the time, rumours were rife that Diego Costa had committed to join Chelsea in the winter transfer window and Atleti were looking for a new number nine.
Like Costa, Benteke has an ability to bully defenders coupled with a high technical quality and ruthlessness in front of goal. As a 22-year-old, Diego Costa scored an unimpressive tally of 6 goals in 28 appearances for Atleti and wasn’t the fearsome Premier League player fans know him to be today. What Costa did possess then and now, is tremendous hard work, a will to win and a fighting spirit that managed to stay just inside the rules of the game (most of the time!)
Villa’s young Belgian striker has always been consistent in front of goal in contrast to Costa and his record as a youth player is frightening. In 37 appearances at youth level for Belgium, Benteke scored 24 goals. In his first full season for Genk, Benteke scored 19 goals, and on arriving at Aston Villa as a 21-year-old, Benteke bagged 19 goals in his debut Premier League season.
The 2013/14 season was admittedly a disappointing one for the player, but there were significant mitigating factors which saw Benteke contribute only 10 goals in 26 appearances. Benteke was plagued with injuries throughout the season, particularly a hip flexor injury which seriously inhibited the striker’s ability to jump and sprint. The Belgian admitted in the opening months of the season that he didn’t feel fit or strong and it was only after Christmas that the striker began to feel himself again.
The comparisons with Diego Costa are not only limited to goals. When Benteke is injured, the balance of Aston Villa’s team is seriously disrupted. Interestingly, Belgium also struggled to replace Benteke during the 2014 World Cup with both Lukaku and Origi taking turns to play in the nine position. Most neutrals fans and pundits had previously assumed that Lukaku was more talented than Benteke, but weaknesses in Lukaku’s game as a number nine have been exposed in the past twelve months and Roberto Martinez now seemingly prefers to play Lukaku wide. Belgium have tried several times to play Lukaku as the main striker, but for one reason or another he hasn’t been as effective as Benteke.
Benteke’s importance to Aston Villa’s team is more clear. He is the focal point of the team and most of the attacking play goes through him. He represents the target man and creative outlet rolled into one player, flanked by two pacey second strikers, Agbonlahor and Weimann, who play for him and feed off his headers and passes.
The 6ft 3 striker is capable of dropping deep and collecting the ball or battling with central defenders when balls are played into the box. He is a fearsome sight when dribbling with the ball from deep positions, and is a real nuisance with his back to goal. Benteke is not phased by physical battles and some of the best defenders in the Premier League defenders have struggled to cope with him.
Branislav Ivanovic resorted to elbowing Benteke after the Belgian had got the better of him and scored in the first half at Stamford Bridge last season. John Terry collapsed in a heap from a Benteke challenge at Villa Park in the 2012/13 season when Villa were well on top and leading 1 – 0. Benteke had scored after 14 minutes and was dominating the game until the 58th minute when Terry took a tumble, which earned Benteke a second yellow card. Not many strikers are able to cause the former England Captain so many problems or win a physical battle, but 22-year-old Benteke did for most of the game that day before his dismissal.
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