Christian Benteke Exclusive: I Could Still Play In Liverpool's Front Three
Christian Benteke pauses. "Yeah," he says, he does think he could do a job in Liverpool's front line. He pauses again before offering an explanation. "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."
The Belgian can only wonder what life at Anfield would have been like had Jurgen Klopp made him the focal point of Liverpool's fast and the furious front three. Instead, the German put his faith in Roberto Firmino and sold Benteke to Crystal Palace during the summer of 2016.
"People will say I'm making excuses, but everyone knows the club was going through a transition when I was there," he tells SPORTbible. "If you compare the team from when I was there to the current team, I think there are only three, four players still in the first 11, most of them are new."
There are actually seven survivors from the 2015/16 squad, but it's fair to say the playing personnel has had undergone some major reconstruction. One of them, Firmino, who joined in 2015 alongside Benteke, has flourished under the conductor of heavy metal football. Nine games, three goals and four assists into this season and the Brazilian is being hailed as 'world-class' by fans and pundits alike.
Benteke, meanwhile, has toiled under four different managers in three years at Selhurst Park, managing just four goals since the end of the 2016/17 campaign. He last found the net 160 days ago, on April 21st during a 3-2 win at The Emirates. This poor run of form has attracted criticism, ridicule and doubt. "Let me tell you, it's been the hardest time in my career so far," he says. "But I haven't lost my confidence. It's more frustration because the thing that I was doing before - scoring goals - I can still do it."
During our revealing chat at Palace's training ground, the 28-year-old explains the factors behind his barren run and why he believes he needs greater pressure and responsibility to rediscover his goal-scoring touch.
For a striker that has scored four goals in his last 57 appearances for Palace, Benteke does not hold himself like a man short on self-belief. At 6ft 3in, he's an imperious figure, full of sinew and power. He's smiley, polite and articulate in his second language. But even he has a limit to the level of abuse he's willing to take. The trolls have been so callous during this difficult period, the Belgium international turned off the comments on his Instagram channel.
He can't escape the vitriol on Twitter. The platform doesn't allow users to hide replies and the venom has been teeming through the keyboards of angry fans. "You owe palace big time for sticking by you through some quite frankly, disgraceful performances" tweeted one Palace supporter.
"People check the live scores, see that you haven't scored and say, 'oh he's shit', without knowing how you played," he says, imitating the action on his phone. "Sometimes I feel like they (critics) are too hard with me, but in another way, it's because they know I can do better.
"If I was just a normal player they wouldn't even bother to criticize me." Has he consulted a sports psychologist to help him cope with the criticism? "No," he says shaking his head with a smile that suggests his mindset is not the problem.
"When I go on the pitch, I believe in myself, I know that I'm good," he adds, sounding like the Benteke who scored 49 goals in 101 games for Aston Villa. At the end of his debut season (2012-13) in the Midlands he was nominated for the PFA Young Player of the Year, eventually finishing as runner-up to double award winner Gareth Bale.
This was enough to convince then Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers to visit Belgium and meet Benteke's family as part of a charm offensive to secure his services in 2015. It worked and he signed for £32.5 million, which at the time, made him their second most expensive transfer ever. Unfortunately, Rodgers, who intended to make Benteke the centre-piece of his attack, lost his job in October 2015 after Liverpool won only four of their opening 11 games in all competitions.
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"I started well, but he (Rodgers) was already under pressure from the previous season because they almost won the league and then Klopp came and everything changed," he says. Benteke could have been forgiven for thinking the arrival of the kooky cap-wearer would mark an upturn in fortunes - Klopp had tried to bring the striker and Kevin De Bruyne to Borussia Dortmund from Genk.
"When he came to Liverpool he said: 'Sorry, I want to play different football I want to have a quick, small, sharp player'," explains Benteke. "I tried to fight for my spot, but at the end of the season he said: 'It's best if you find a new situation too, I won't hold you up.'"
After Benteke finished the season with 10 goals in 42 games, Alan Pardew and Crystal Palace offered him the chance to take centre stage at Selhurst Park. He joined the south Londoners in a deal with £28 million and he repaid them with 17 goals in his first season. "I scored a lot of goals because Pardew wanted me," he says, making a pointed reference to the effect of a manager's belief.
"Then it was Sam Allardyce and we know that when you have Zaha, he is the main player, but he knew 'Christian is up there, let's make sure we use him right'. Now we have Roy and he's a different manager with different ideas. You have to adapt and that's what I'm trying to do."
The adaptation hasn't quite clicked. He's made 53 appearances under Hodgson, scoring just four goals. While Benteke has to take responsibility for his lack of conviction in front of goal, he says he needs the right service and statistically, Crystal Palace aren't crossing the ball as much.
"Yeah, I know that," he says with a chuckle. According to stats from the Premier League, only Cardiff (562) and Watford (570) attempted fewer crosses than Palace (577) last season. The season he finished as the club's top scorer (2016/17) they crossed the ball 872 times - only Southampton recorded more (947).
Rather than disrupt the team, the club's record-signing says he is following the manager's instructions, even if it hampers his own game. "We're more compact under Hodgson," he explains.
"We defend really deep, really hard, but I don't blame him because he's the boss. If the manager wants me to do something that is not in my game, then I'm going to play like it's not me and I will not score, but he's probably happy because I defend, I work hard.
"Then people will say, 'Oh, he's not confident', and obviously you have to take part of the responsibility, but it's not about really about your qualities. I'm fighting against myself to find the right way. It's a team sport, but I need to think about myself too."
Injuries, the tactical preferences of different managers and his own dip in form has left Benteke bristling with frustration. He's a striker who feels like he's lost control of his mission to be the goalscorer he ought to be. In his eagerness to regain control he finds himself in a state of desperation. Game time is also an issue. He's only started three of Palace's seven games this season. Has he spoken to the manager?
"No, I didn't speak with him yet," he admits. "But I spoke with him last season about the crosses and he agreed with me because it's a fact. It's not like I'm lying. I've got to change something, I've got to take a risk at some point."
Having missed out on the 2014 and 2018 World Cups he has one eye on making Belgium's Euro 2020 squad. Does taking a risk mean leaving Crystal Palace in the January transfer window?
"No," he says emphatically. "It's too soon to talk about this. I don't feel that I finished my job. I can do well here. We've only played six games, there's another 32 to play. A lot of things can happen, that's the beauty of this game."
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