Aston Villa striker Christian Benteke is my Young Player of the Year
Less than 24 hours after Gareth Bale scooped the double of PFA Player of the Year and Young Player of the Year, one of the defeated contenders for the latter prize scored a crucial hat-trick, which all but maintains his club’s status as an ever-present in the Premier League era. Christian Benteke’s treble took him to eighteen league goals in his maiden season in England. He has defied virtually everyone’s expectations since the end of August but the 22-year old has taken it all in his stride – just another step, indeed a positive step, after much upheaval in his short life.
His departure from Racing Genk was acrimonious, having cried off training in order to help force through a move. Once he was omitted from the squad to face Luzern in the Europa League, it was clear that too many bridges had been burned and he joined Aston Villa on transfer deadline day. It’s worth briefly breaking down the varying degrees of scepticism about the move. There were the naysayers who never thought he’d even make it as a leading player in Belgium, those who felt he would never make it abroad in a major league and those, who saw someone whose talent had been unfairly overlooked by the majority but who had made a premature leap into the big time with a club, who most foresaw battling against the drop.
Was throwing yet another youngster into a youthful and fragile Villa side not like feeding lambs to the slaughter? I subscribed to the latter school of thought and I am happy to have been proven wrong but were I to be faced with the same circumstances again, I would make exactly the same judgment. Hindsight is a wonderful thing and we shouldn’t fall over ourselves to backtrack or be apologetic for making a perfectly logical prediction based on the evidence available at the time as it will cloud our judgment in the future.
Benteke’s bow for the Villans came against Swansea on 15 September and he notched a debut goal in a 2-0 win before being described by his manager Paul Lambert as “unplayable”. Prior to his treble on Monday night, his match référence (literally benchmark game / high-water mark) was the stunning 3-1 win at Anfield, in which he scored twice and gave a performance any of the Liverpool forwards who have graced the iconic stadium would have been proud of. He has seldom looked back since and in 2013, has scored on thirteen occasions. His hat-trick on Monday night showcased his aerial ability, pace and ability to pick his spot as he got one over on international teammate Simon Mignolet, who was in goal for Sunderland. Equally impressive though was his run in the build up to Villa’s second goal, with which he took the Mackem defence out of the game, paving the way for Andreas Weimann to score.
It has been a long road to this point for Benteke, whose lack of English (certainly compared to Vincent Kompany or Romelu Lukaku) did not unduly hinder his adaptation to the English game. In Paul Lambert he has a coach willing to champion him – the ex-Norwich boss has done so defiantly in the face of the received wisdom of the English punditocracy to afford Darren Bent a greater role. His previous boss Mario Been also showed considerable faith, sticking by the 6ft 3in (1m90) frontman when he was charged with involvement in a car-jacking. Benteke was acquitted in November last year when the trial established it was a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Benteke went back and forth between Genk and Standard in the early days of his career. With les Rouches then boasting the likes of Mbokani and Milan Jovanovic, he was in the u21 squad and subsequently went on loan to Kortrijk in 2009. Under the tutelage of Georges Leekens and linking up well with mobile striker Ibou, he scored nine goals in the regular season to help Kortrijk to a sensational fourth spot and then backed that up by becoming the joint top scorer in PO1 with five more. He returned to Standard but after a difficult start to the season in which he failed to find his shooting boots and proved unpopular with the fans, he was sent out on loan to Mechelen against his will (in exchange for Aloys Nong) and he vowed never to return. This time, his loan spell proved to be less successful as he scored just six times.
It wasn’t to be third time lucky at Sclessin despite some promising early season form as Benteke had a long memory of his earlier ill treatment. Everton were interested in taking him to Goodison Park where he would have joined Marouane Fellaini but while many clubs were reluctant to pay €1.5m, Genk pounced to bring him back to Limburg. He began slowly, partly due to the strain of the car-jacking incident and scored just once before Christmas. However, he would end the season on 16 goals, again proving his mettle in the play-offs with six goals, forming a fearsome strike partnership with Jelle Vossen.
And yet all of it may never have happened. What is now a burgeoning career at club level (and he remains first choice up front for Belgium despite some recent harsh criticism, which is admittedly not without foundation) could have been cut off before it had even begun. He showed promise at La Pierreuse but did not return for three years after his first training session. Growing up in one of Liège’s poorest suburbs, his father didn’t believe a career in football was viable, cut up his son’s football boots and ordered him to concentrate on his studies. Three years later after his grades had improved, he returned to La Pierreuse and was recognised by his former coach José Raniolo. By that age he was already 6ft/1.80m tall and though trials at Genk and MVV Maastricht proved unsuccessful, he was signed up by Standard. Turbulent though his path from then on proved to be, he has flourished to become a striker no Premier League defender relishes coming up against.
The success of Benteke has given hope to other talented Belgian players, in particular KAA Gent striker Ilombé “Petit Pelé” Mboyo, who recently attracted interest from Norwich and is reportedly top of Anderlecht’s list to replace Dieumerci Mbokani this summer.
“I would like to do the same thing as Benteke,” he told Bediables.be. He’s an example that it’s a good thing that one person’s opinion is not another’s. In Belgium, he was often criticised and he was not judged fairly. Then, he proved in England that he is a great player. That’s what I’m getting at when I say that in football, it goes very quickly. You must always believe in your dreams and never give up. Benteke is the best example of that.”[When I said virtually everyone at the start, this is what I meant…]
“His success has not surprised me at all. I know Christian for quite a long time. He is very strong and a very good striker. It hasn’t surprised me at all, I knew he had the qualities to succeed there. I know he can even go up a level.”
Romelu Lukaku has stuck two fingers up at his critics this term for West Brom, even prompting Mike Calvin to reverse his earlier statement that the ex-Anderlecht man was the worst £20m player he had ever seen. Eden Hazard deserved to be on the shortlist for both awards as in the round he enjoyed a fine maiden season having set the bar almost impossibly high during the soap opera that preceded his decision to join Chelsea, which has skewed people’s views. However, these players had both been universally earmarked as the most precocious of talents, for whom the big breakthrough was a matter of time. Benteke is the most unlikely successor among Belgium’s foreign legion in England and that’s why he would have received my (slightly biased BeNeFoot) vote as the Premier League’s best young player this season.