Christian Benteke: Why is the Crystal Palace striker a shadow of the player who starred for Aston Villa?

Christian Benteke was once one of the most in demand strikers in the Premier League.

His form during three seasons with Aston Villa built a reputation strong enough to seal a mega-money move to Liverpool.

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Benteke has struggled at Palace

Since then, life for the Belgian has never been the same. One good debut season with Crystal Palace aside, Benteke has never looked anything like the player who adapted to life in the top-flight with such ease only seven years earlier.

Here we take a look at why it has gone wrong and if he can ever rediscover his former self.

The confusion etched on Wilfried Zaha’s face was initially unclear, he had just won a penalty, in stoppage-time for Crystal Palace, but his bemusement would soon become apparent.

Tripped by Bournemouth’s Charlie Daniels, Kevin Friend had made his mind up and pointed to the spot, it was the second time he had done so that afternoon.

Naturally, Bournemouth protested the decision, meanwhile Luka Milivojevic had collected the ball, certain of dispatching once more from 12 yards, he had done so earlier and rarely missed.

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Benteke missed a penalty against Bournemouth in 2017

To his right, Benteke had entered the fray. This, he had decided was his moment, the chance to be a hero and end a goal drought that had stretched back to May 2017. It was now December, each of his previous 24 shots had failed to find the net, but such was his insistence that the 25th would be different, Milivojevic eventually relented.

Scott Dann and James Tomkins queried the decision, Zaha, still unsure, looked to have sensed the outcome.

An effort so tame, so harmless, Asmir Begovic could have made and consumed a cup of tea in the time it took to reach his goal.

Benteke was booed at full-time and Palace returned to the bottom of the Premier League.

“We expected Luka to take it. He’s the designated penalty taker,” Roy Hodgson said, exasperated having already had to find an explanation for one irate fan.

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The Belgian has scored three times in the last two seasons

“The reason he was booed off was because the fans, having seen us swarm around their penalty area, thought we’d won it when the referee pointed to the spot. When the guy misses it, he has to accept he’ll be booed off the field.”

What is ironic, is this had been Benteke’s best performance in a Palace shirt for some time. In fact, he had not played this well since April of the same year when his two-goals earned Palace a memorable 2-1 win against Liverpool, as they took a massive step towards survival.

The personal satisfaction must have been overwhelming for Benteke, despite his muted celebrations at Anfield, he had proved a point, to both the fans and Jurgen Klopp.

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Jurgen Klopp never truly wanted Benteke

He was in the form of his life when he left Aston Villa for Liverpool. 42 goals in 89 Premier League games, Benteke was now a £32.5million purchase for Brendan Rodgers.

“He is a brilliant number nine. He won’t need just crosses to come into the box. If he gets service, he’ll get goals,” Lambert told BBC Sport, in 2015.

“That’s the type of guy he is and on his day he’s a handful. I’m delighted for him. He’s earned that move and if he can do what I think he can do, he’ll do great for them.”

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It would be unfair to criticise Lambert’s attempts at being a visionary, his point at the time was by no means hyperbole.

However, Benteke’s move to Merseyside was anything but great, Rodgers left and in came Klopp, the German never trusted the 24-year-old and it showed.

Klopp’s teams are famed for their high press, the analogy of ‘heavy metal football’ is the sound of intensity. The ball must be played quickly into the striker, who in turn, must react in similar fashion, be on the move, make space and score. That’s his philosophy and it has never changed.

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Benteke did not suit Klopp’s high press style of football

We are seeing that in recent seasons with Mohammed Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino, all are in double figures for goals, all can interchange.

This style did not suit Benteke, his style did not suit Liverpool, too slow, cumbersome, staying in one position would not be tolerated.

Ten years earlier, he would have flourished at Anfield, similar to Emile Heskey.

The days of a two-man forward line are rare, Heskey’s partnership worked wonders with Michael Owen, because that was the style of that time, tactics and the game have evolved considerably from the little and large partnership.

At Villa, Benteke was a striker and no more. He did not have to move into midfield or out wide, that was not his forte. In his time there, he was flanked by Gabriel Agbonlahor and Andreas Weimann, who allowed him to stay central. Klopp never afforded Benteke that luxury.

Liverpool finished eighth in 2015/16, Benteke made just 14 league starts and scored nine times.

Inevitably he was made the scapegoat, labelled a flop and headed down the M40 to South East London after one disappointing season.

In truth, he was never likely to stand a chance once Rodgers was shown the exit.

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Benteke was superb for Aston Villa

In his first season at Palace, Benteke was the main man, just like he was at Villa. Left alone up front, with Zaha and Andros Townsend as chief support, he could count on decent service from out wide. The form looked to have returned and he thrived on scoring and bringing others into play, strength mixed with intelligence, an old-fashioned centre-forward.

There were 17 goals in all competitions in 2016/17, 15 in the top-flight, his second highest tally since he arrived in England from Genk.

Benteke was now looking very much like the clinical, powerful striker who was once the darling of the Midlands, the player who had finished runner-up to Gareth Bale in the PFA Young Player of the Year awards and the first Villa player to surpass the 20-goal mark since Juan Pablo Angel in 2004.

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Benteke will hope to revive his stuttering career

Since then, the demise has been drastic, sudden. Benteke netted three times in 30 league appearances, his lack of contribution raised concern and his lethargic displays cost him a place in Belgium’s World Cup squad last summer.

No goals in 10 matches this campaign, it seems uncertain when that will change, given Zaha and Townsend are proving more than adept in attack with their direct running, while former Chelsea striker Michy Batshuayi has been signed on loan, handed the striking berth.

The confidence of Benteke is understandably fragile and while he is a shadow of the player he once was, he is still only 28, peak years for a footballer.

A change of club may very well do the trick, abroad perhaps, but should his career continue in the same downwards trajectory for much longer, Benteke runs the risk of fading into football obscurity.

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