F365’s early winner: ‘Pantomime villain’-turned-hero Benteke

Ian Watson

“Awkward…” squirmed Wilfried Zaha when he was asked before Crystal Palace’s trip to Leicester whether the fall-out from Christian Benteke’s penalty miss against Bournemouth had blown over. The “pantomime villain”, as Roy Hodgson described him, needed to say sorry on Monday after grabbing the ball from designated penalty taker Luka Milivojevic last week and wasting the opportunity to claim two precious points with a spot-kick so poor it beggared belief. Hodgson accepted Benteke’s apology but to the Palace boss, actions speak louder than words.

A week on, though, Benteke might now consider himself forgiven. Scoring Palace’s first goal away from Selhurst Park for 935 minutes before then teeing up Zaha for their second as the Eagles earned their first away win since April should do the trick.

No-one in the Premier League needed a goal this weekend more than Benteke. Breaking ranks last week was bad enough but that incident was made even harder to swallow by the Belgium international’s wretched form. His was the sort of run which he would probably have been dropped by now, had Hodgson had another striker he could turn to.

“We can’t afford to carry anyone, let alone a goalscorer who isn’t scoring goals,” said Hodgson of Benteke before the trip to the King Power. Not only had he not scored all season, but Benteke had provided no assists. Despite the lack of obvious alternatives, Hodgson was considering employing winger Bakary Sako as a centre-forward. This weekend represented Benteke’s last chance before the bench beckoned.

To the relief of everyone at Palace, Benteke’s performance was improved exponentially. In only one other game this season has he attempted more shots, while his shooting accuracy of 67 per cent compares extremely favourably with his average this term of 46 per cent. The striker engaged in, and won, more duels; he lost possession 12 times compared to his season average of 16 times per match, while his passing accuracy of 74 per cent was almost 20 per cent higher than his average. One pass, for Zaha five minutes before the break, brought his first assist of the campaign.

Of course, it was not a flawless performance. He wasted a second-half sitter when heading straight at Kasper Schmeichel from point-blank range, while he failed to connect with two opportunities in either half. But the goal, when it came on 19 minutes, provided a necessary confidence boost.

And, more so than many other strikers, Benteke thrives on confidence. Much like his international team-mate Romelu Lukaku, the Palace centre-forward does not possess the type of unshakeable self-belief many great strikers have. Despite his physical attributes, when things are going agaisnt him, he too easily allows himself to be bullied and shackled by centre-halves who should not be able to match his pace and power. That scenario has played out too often for Palace during his 13-goal drought, and Harry Maguire was also winning the early exchanges before Andros Townsend landed a devilish cross on Benteke’s forehead on 19 minutes. After that point, he was a striker transformed.

Irritatingly for Hodgson, Benteke will not get the opportunity to carry forward whatever confidence he may have gained today into their next match. His fifth yellow card of the season was the grey lining on a silver cloud ahead of the crucial trip to Swansea next Saturday. Fortunately, Sako’s strike in a late cameo, in addition to his poacher’s goal in the comeback win over Watford in midweek, suggests perhaps Palace do not have to rely completely on Benteke.

That competition, combined with whichever striker Hodgson recruits in January – possibly Monaco’s Guido Carrillo – should drive the Belgian on to better things. So long as he believes he can achieve them.

Ian Watson