AS a journalist once said to a famous footballer from Northern Ireland, where did it all go wrong?
In the case of Christian Benteke, he’s certainly no George Best, writes Ian Ryan. In fact, there’s many a Red who will tell you they would rather have had his catwalk model son, Callum, leading the line for Liverpool over the last 12 months.
However, at the time of writing, it’s looking increasingly likely that his time in a red shirt is coming to an end. The dreams of Liverpool fans across the globe might never see reality when it comes to the 6ft 3ins Belgian striker, who arrived from Aston Villa last summer as the man charged with firing the Reds to number 19.
Now, most accept it’s a done deal that he won’t be lining up in red come August. But should he stay or should he go?
Hindsight is a wonderful thing, and it’s easy to sit back a year on and tell anyone who cares to listen that the man from Kinshasa and Liverpool Football Club were never going to be a match made in heaven.
Would he have been my first choice to lead the line for a club that has seen Luis Suarez, Daniel Sturridge and Fernando Torres tear Premier League defenders apart over recent years? Hand on heart, probably not. His goal record for Aston Villa certainly meant there was a debate to be had, but for many it was his perceived lack of movement that caused eyebrows to raise.
However, when you sign a Belgian international for a transfer fee in excess of £30m, you hope there is a plan in place to get the best from a player, who, let’s be fair, had caused our backline (five goals in six appearances against the Reds) and many others significant problems both on the floor and in the air.
If you recruit a striker built like a cruiserweight boxer who thrives on balls into the box, it’s probably fair to assume that ‘Plan A’ might be to ensure you consistently have plenty of crosses coming in from wide areas but, apart from the odd Gerrard-esque delivery — see James Milner to Benteke’s head against Southampton — this type of quality into the penalty area was too often in short supply.
The argument for the prosecution on paper (and to be fair on the pitch) might look like case closed but did the club do enough to get the best out of the big man?
Taking this right back to last summer, it was never going to be easy for Benteke given that he was earmarked by Brendan Rodgers as the man to make up for a lack of goals the previous season (2014-15) only to find that the manager who was primarily responsible for his arrival was gone before the leaves had fallen from the trees.
There were flashes of brilliance early on — the sumptuous overhead kick against Manchester United might just be the finest goal scored at Old Trafford by a Liverpool player since Ronnie Whelan thought it was a good idea to lob Bruce Grobbelaar from 25 yards.
The winner against Bournemouth gave the Reds three crucial points when they were hardly deserved, and you thought maybe, just maybe, this is what we’ve been missing — Liverpool play poorly but our £30m striker delivers against the run of play and everyone goes home with a spring in their step.
A fired-up Benteke came off the bench against Chelsea in October to condemn Jose Mourinho to another home defeat, dancing around John Terry and Gary Cahill before firing in the all-important third goal at Stamford Bridge, sealing Jürgen Klopp’s first away win in the Premier League.
In fact, the arrival of Klopp had raised hopes in certain quarters that he might be the man to get the best out of our new number nine. After all, the German had reportedly been heavily linked with bringing him into his thriving Borussia Dortmund team, who at the time seemed to be giving Bayern Munich a run for their money when it came to competing for the biggest prizes both domestically and in Europe.
However, those hopes didn’t last long. From his very first press conference, Klopp talked about heavy metal football, the need to press the opposition high up the pitch, closing down centre halves like our lives depended on it. Did it remind you of Christian Benteke? No, me neither.
The case for the defence might point to his Achilles injury for Aston Villa which resulted in him missing the 2014 World Cup, taking away that extra yard of pace that might have allowed his game to develop under a manager like Klopp.
Rodgers and Liverpool Football Club must have known they were probably getting a slightly diluted version of the player, who, while not electric off the mark, was certainly capable of using his pace, power and physique to get past defenders — often able to make a more penetrating run than he has post-injury.
If you go back to when the Belgian was at the peak of his powers in 2013, serving up a brilliant solo effort against Chelsea in the May of that year, you think if we could have a slice of that Benteke then I might well be writing a totally different article.
Under Klopp, he quickly found himself operating predominately from the bench, and while there were still some hugely significant contributions — winning goals against Leicester, Sunderland and Crystal Palace spring to mind — you got the feeling it was only a matter of time before the curtain came crashing down on his Liverpool career.
For every overhead kick or winning goal, two or three gilt-edged opportunities went begging, the chance against Leicester City deep into injury time at Anfield providing further evidence, if any was needed, that with every winning goal, moments of disbelief were often lurking on the horizon.
Confidence is a major factor in all sport, none more so than for a striker playing at one of the world’s biggest clubs, and although we often saw glimpses that suggested Benteke wasn’t lacking in self-belief (last-minute penalty against Crystal Palace) you sensed a cloud of fragility hung over him from game to game.
And yet, he still managed nine Premier League goals from 29 appearances, starting only 14 of those matches. With a stand-off over his price tag with Crystal Palace, is there still a lingering argument to give him one more season? Could he have offer something slightly different if the pace, mobility and incisive running of a Daniel Sturridge, Divock Origi or Danny Ings was not quite opening the opposition door?
Chances are we’ll probably never know, and it seems the most important man at the club has decided a parting of the ways will probably suit everyone. That’s good enough for me.
Benteke might not be the answer to what Liverpool need under the stewardship Klopp but he could be the right solution for a number of Premier League clubs — just ask Aston Villa, who would more than likely be preparing for another season in the top flight had they been able to keep him in their ranks.
Where to next then?
As mentioned above, if reports are to be believed, our old friend Alan Pardew and Crystal Palace could provide Benteke with an escape route. A bid of £31.5m (including £4m in add-ons) was submitted earlier this month, although those same reports also claim a straight £30m up front would suit the selling club far more.
In the darkest days of last season, most fans would have surely taken £20m without hesitation. Yet when you see Watford turning down £30m for Troy Deeney you start to question everything in life, never mind football.
If this is the end for Christian Benteke as a Liverpool number nine, I for one wish him farewell, good luck and with no hard feelings. If the move to south London comes to fruition, no doubt the big man will be highlighting October 29, 2016 in his calendar — he might just have a point to prove when Liverpool come to town.
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