By Liam Twomey
To some, it was ungrateful. To others, understandable. But whoever you are, nobody can deny that, with Aston Villa’s confirmation late on Monday that he has submitted a formal transfer request, Christian Benteke has got your attention.
And that, of course, is the point. The 22-year-old’s stock could barely be higher after a sensational first season in England which saw him score 19 Premier League goals in a struggling side.
What better time than now, then, to expose the pressing nature of his ambition? Last month Goal reported that Liverpool and Tottenham had made enquiries about him. Now Chelsea have joined the chase. Benteke knows how desirable he is, and has picked his moment perfectly.
Many of a Villa persuasion will view his actions as anything from ingratitude to outright betrayal.
Benteke got his chance in the Premier League because Paul Lambert was willing to stake €8.1 million of a limited transfer budget on his talent, and a foolish red card against Chelsea on May 11 briefly left his club facing the prospect of a final-day relegation play-off with Wigan, shorn of the man who had a direct hand in 40 per cent of their league goals last season.
But few within football see things in such moralistic terms. Benteke himself would no doubt argue, with justification, that his 23 goals in all competitions and consistently stellar performances ensured Villa’s investment was more than aptly repaid. If, as expected, he commands a big fee this summer, the relationship will become even more lucrative for owner Randy Lerner.
In a bullish statement, Villa insisted they are not inclined to sell their star man for anything less than their valuation – unlikely to be under the €23m mark – while Lambert was at pains to leave the door open for reconciliation, though his words carried an air of desperation.
The bottom line is that the cards are stacked in Benteke's favour. Lerner will be inclined to accept a generous enough offer, the Belgian’s current €23,000-a-week wages mean personal terms will almost certainly not be an obstacle, and there are simply too many interested parties to make another season at Villa Park a likely ending to the transfer saga that is now inevitable.
Yet there is no reason why Villa cannot also emerge from this as winners. The two questions which remain are ‘how much?’ and ‘who to?’ The answers will be conditioned by the strength of Lerner's resolve and the level of anxiety in those searching for attacking reinforcements this summer.
In this regard, the early signs are good for Villa. Chelsea have missed out on Radamel Falcao and Edinson Cavani to Ligue 1's emerging superpowers, Robert Lewandowski has his heart set on Bayern Munich, and Manchester United appear once more, at least publicly, to be laying claim to Wayne Rooney's future.
Top-class options are growing thin on the ground, but Jose Mourinho still needs more than a faded Fernando Torres, below-par Demba Ba and an unrefined Romelu Lukaku.
Tottenham, meanwhile, have missed out on Andre Villas-Boas’ No.1 target, David Villa, while long-time muse Leandro Damiao is being courted by Napoli and Southampton. A new striker remains a must, and Benteke fits the classic Daniel Levy mould: young, talented and no threat to the prized wage structure.
Liverpool's sincerity of interest depends on the realisation – and timing – of Luis Suarez's desired departure to Real Madrid. Arsenal - Benteke's boyhood club - are pre-occupied with haggling over a fee for Gonzalo Higuain, but an audacious enquiry and rumoured bid for the Merseysiders' unsettled Uruguayan indicates they are prepared to consider lavishly expensive alternatives should talks with los Blancos collapse.
A bidding war would benefit Benteke and Villa, while increasing the risk for his inevitable buyer. As some have learned to their cost, debut seasons are not always a reliable sample size for judging a prospective big-money purchase. Michael Ricketts scored 15 Premier League goals in his, while Andy Carroll scored 11 in his first five months in the top flight.
Yet watching the Belgian's lightning adaptation to the English game over the past year, it is clear his success is not simply down to soaring confidence, blind luck or a polished gameplan specifically designed to hide glaring weaknesses – mainly because he does not appear to have any.
Surprisingly fast, formidably strong, technically slick and increasingly clinical with either foot or head, he has all the makings of a fearsome, intelligent, modern European striker.
Paying a marquee price at this stage would be a gamble, but not an outrageous one. There are no guarantees in football, but Benteke already looks capable of enhancing almost any attack in the Premier League, and logic suggests there is further improvement to come.
Judging by his actions on Monday, the man himself believes so too.
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