Christian Benteke might as well now give up on the idea that he’s a goalscorer, but as he’s shown in recent games, he can still be crucial…
It’s been a while since Christian Benteke has been seen as a reliable goalscorer, or even as an asset to any team he has played in. Whilst his more recent career has been blighted by injuries, he has often flattered to deceive. His time at Liverpool was so disappointing it is easy to forget that, at the time, he was their second most expensive signing ever. He hasn’t scored more than ten goals in a season since his first at Crystal Palace back in 2016-17. A manager choosing Benteke to head up their attack is surely one not interested in scoring goals.
For the majority of the first half of the season, Roy Hodgson decided he would not be such a manager. Benteke spent time on the bench whilst Jordan Ayew led the Crystal Palace line. During that time they scored 14 goals in 16 games. It seemed a manager choosing Ayew to head up their attack was also one not interested in scoring goals.
Hodgson signed Cenk Tosun on loan in January, clearly wanting a more dynamic centre-forward. Tosun did not make an immediate impact, and now he has been ruled out for the rest of the season, forcing Hodgson to go back to Ayew and Benteke. With Benteke in the starting line up again, Palace have scored 26 goals in 29 games and are in 11th place. Not much change there then.
Benteke was gifted his first goal of the season in a 3-1 loss to Everton when his shot slipped through Jordan Pickford’s hands. Whilst it hasn’t inspired a flurry of goals since, it does seem to have given him more confidence in other areas of the field. Crystal Palace have now won three games 1-0 on the bounce, with Benteke’s build-up play key in two of those victories.
Initially against Brighton last week, it felt like the same old story from Benteke. In the fourth minute, a ball was played from the halfway line over the top of the Brighton defence. He shaped his body – presumably to shoot – but the ball that came off his foot looked more like a cross. It typified the problem of having Benteke as your target man. He might be your target, but there’s no guarantee whether he has figured out where his target is. Yet the build up for Palace’s goal showed a different side of Benteke.
Benteke dispossessed Brighton midway in their half, using his strength to bundle the ball away from two Brighton players. He then drove forward to the edge of the area before playing a reverse pass through the defensive line to Ayew who finished well. It was all Palace needed to get the three points.
The play showed Benteke’s ability in a different sense. Instead of a focus on his performance in front of goal, he was able to be a physical presence further up the pitch, pulling defenders away at the same time. It was reminiscent of the way older strikers choose to hold up the ball in an advanced area and bring other teammates into the game. It felt like a much more realistic representation of where Benteke’s strengths lie at the moment.
Palace probably felt they couldn’t have faced Watford at a worse point of the season: fighting relegation and on a high from being the first and only team to beat Liverpool in the league this season. Their defence, bolstered by Gary Cahill’s arrival in the summer, has been particularly reliable – they have more clean sheets than Chelsea, Wolverhampton Wanderers and Arsenal. This was to be their third consecutive clean sheet in a row, the first time they have managed that since March 2017.
Midway through the second half, Benteke received the ball on the halfway line. He turned and drove beyond three Watford players, before passing out to Wilfred Zaha on the wing. He continued his run, receiving the ball back in the area, before turning away from the goal to pass to James McCarthur on the edge of the penalty box. McArthur passed to Ayew who took a couple of neat touches to take the ball out of his feet and fired past Ben Foster.
Benteke once again showed precision almost by not assuming he should try to score. When he received the ball back from Zaha, it would have been easy for him to look for a shot, even expected for him to. But instead by playing with his back to goal, he opened up a better scoring opportunity which, for the second week in a row, gave his side three points.
Remarkably Crystal Palace are now only four points off the European places. There is some suggestion that Roy Hodgson has been aiming for a zero goal difference and it is testament to his management that Palace have continued to grind out results despite their lack of composure in front of goal.
If Hodgson can continue to use Benteke to hold up the ball, to bring Ayew and Zaha into the game better, there will be more goals. If there are more goals, there will be more results, and given the inconsistency of the teams above them, there could be European football. That would more than show that Benteke can still be an asset to a team.
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