By David Lynch
Aston Villa are in a spot of bother to say the least. The Midlands club sit on the precipice of the relegation zone, having earned just 24 points this season, and go into Saturday’s intimidating clash with Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium boasting a squad as thin as it is inexperienced.
Yet, even ahead of a meeting with one of the country’s top teams, an opposition whose determination has doubled thanks to a trying week, Aston Villa have hope. And it is an optimism created entirely out of the fact that Christian Benteke is certain to start the game in claret and blue.
When you say that aloud, it seems odd to think that, at the start of the season, a sizeable group of Villa fans and more casual observers were calling for the Belgian striker to be dropped. Darren Bent, it was argued, provided a more proven goal threat in the Premier League than this young pretender overawed after a summer move to a big league.
Admittedly, that viewpoint looked more sensible then than it does now, as the 22-year-old striker followed up a debut goal against Swansea with a run of five games for the club without finding the net. But Paul Lambert - a manager whose judgement has been questioned understandably regularly this term given his team’s plight - kept the faith, and that stance soon began to pay dividends.
|BENTEKE'S CAREER STATS
(Aug 11 - Aug 12)
(Aug 10 - Jun 11)
(Jan 09 - Aug 11)
Benteke showed just why the Scot appreciated his talents by scoring five in his next 10 appearances for Villa, displaying all the qualities which currently mark him out as a superior option to Bent. Still, it seemed he would require a momentous breakthrough moment to truly stamp his mark on English football fans’ collective consciousness and, unfortunately for Liverpool, it came on a cold mid-December afternoon at Anfield.
The Zaire-born striker bullied the Reds' defence, grabbed two goals and provided a backheel assist for Andreas Weimann that bordered on the ridiculous, such was the perfect nature of its execution as the visitors ran out shock 3-1 winners. In terms of football cliché, Benteke had announced his arrival in a big way.
The striker’s form has shown no signs of abating either, despite Villa’s struggles at the bottom of the table. He goes into Saturday’s fixture on a run of five goals in his last six outings and a clear-cut chance conversion rate of 53 per cent which suggests that his finishing is in fact statistically superior to leading strikers such as Robin van Persie (38%), Demba Ba (44%) and Sergio Aguero (32%).
When you consider that the aforementioned players feature for teams who create more chances per game, the importance of Benteke’s ruthlessness to Aston Villa’s bid for survival is clear. However, it's hard to escape the thought that the Belgium international might score even more frequently for a team more worthy of his talents.
It is enough to make you wonder why those sorts of teams were not aware of Benteke’s ability prior to his £7.5 million move to Lambert's side in the summer. But the truth is that, of course, they were.
Young forwards who score 16 league goals in 32 appearances - as Benteke did with Genk last season - and have already earned senior international recognition at that age do not slip under the radar. However, bringing a 21-year-old player to a new league carries a certain level of risk, and Aston Villa were the only club willing to take that leap of faith on the evidence of a solitary campaign.
Of course, this is one gamble which has paid off quite magnificently, and will have an even greater impact in monetary terms should Benteke’s goals help Villa survive to reap the rewards of next season’s new television deal. If not, then that gap in cash flow will have to be filled, and only then will the true value of the striker become apparent.
Lambert may well have come out fighting on the issue in his pre-match conference, telling reporters: "As far as I'm concerned, the guy is here and he isn't going anywhere until I say so or not really. That's the bottom line."
But you get that feeling that he may well be forced to "say so" soon. For the good of all parties.
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