It’s easy to make fun of Christian Benteke. The Crystal Palace man is a doddering mix of half-hearted movement and clueless finishing. He has scored just twice from open play since the Summer of 2017.
Yet it wasn’t always like this. Back in 2012, Benteke’s arrival at Aston Villa represented something of a coup for Paul Lambert, with the striker arriving on foot of a goal-trodden spell with Genk.
A subsequent £32 million move to Liverpool was earned on the back of a rollicking goals-per-game ratio in the Midlands - by the time he departed, he was averaging nearly a goal every 120 minutes, and had a reputation as one of the most ruthless finishers in the country.
His goalscoring has tailed off considerably since those heady days at Villa park, and he even admitted so in an interview with the Mirror last year: “In the past I have had just one opportunity on the match and I scored."
Fourteen starts at Anfield, however, told its own story. Jurgen Klopp was looking for a solution to his striking problems, and the Belgian played his way out of the spotlight. When Crystal Palace made their interest known, it felt like a move would suit all parties.
Benteke, however, has never been the same player since. He was woeful again on Monday night, scuppering a host of presentable opportunities as the home crowd cheered on sympathetically.
Eagles fans appreciate his endeavour, but they must also be asking themselves – how long can his profligacy be indulged?
Roy Hodgson might strike a measured tone, but he is well aware of the task facing his side this season. For a squad that began last season with seven consecutive defeats, his only concern is Premier League survival. Palace’s formation and tactics reflect that.
For the second game in a row, his team lined up in a defensive 4-4-2, with pacy wingers hoping to dovetail alongside Wilfried Zaha and feed off Benteke’s hold-ups and knockdowns. It’s not exactly Juego de Hodgson, but it’s efficacy was shown in the opening day demolition of Fulham.
Against better opposition, however, Benteke’s dearth of contribution was exposed.
Virgil van Dijk barely broke out of a jog during Liverpool’s professional 2-0 win at Selhurst Park. No matter how hard he tried, the Belgian couldn’t make the ball stick, frustrating the energetic forays of Zaha and co. as he lost possession or made poor decisions.
It was the Belgian’s ceding of possession that led eventually to Liverpool’s crucial penalty, with Aaron Wan-Bissaka sent off for a crude challenge on Mohamed Salah.
It was a bitter end to a difficult night, one that sums up Palace’s melancholic relationship with their striker. His effort can’t be faulted, but his productivity must be.
Alexander Sorloth, a £9 million recruit from FC Midtjylland in January, has made successive cameos after coming on for the struggling Belgian.
The tall Scandinavian might lack Benteke’s goalscoring history, but the difference he made to Palace’s play was instantly recognisable. He was even unlucky not to score at Fulham, a last-minute effort diverted by the watchful Fabri.
With winnable games against Watford and Southampton on the horizon, Hodgson has a crucial decision to make. Stick with Benteke, and hope that he suddenly finds his feet after 18 morose months, or give a chance to a player that has been bristling on the sidelines.
Sorloth has shown already that he is capable of making an impression, and a good start may give his confidence an early boost.
Time will tell
Whatever he decides, Hodgson knows not to write Benteke off just yet.
His form might be maddening but there’s a reason that clubs have spent a combined total of £80 million on him during his career thus far.
A spell on the sidelines may be exactly what he needs to gather himself and refocus. If he does, then Palace will have one of the most capable forwards in the league.
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