This interview first appeared in the Crystal Palace v Burnley matchday programme – 29th April 2017.
“I’ll be even better next season”
It’s probably fair to say that Christian Benteke doesn’t want this season to end. Five goals in his last six appearances has seen him terrorise defences again, and now he is filled with confidence those backlines will be quaking in their boots at the thought of the rejuvenated striker aiming to be a more of a menace than ever before.
Less than a month ago, Wilfried Zaha squared the ball across the area at Stamford Bridge and time seemed to stand still. This was the opportunity Christian Benteke had been waiting two months and five matches for, and the only man preventing him ending his goal drought was one he knew very well.
Thibaut Courtois is arguably one of the league’s best goalkeepers, but with everything mapped out in his mind the Palace striker knew what was needed to beat his long-time international teammate – the element of surprise. With nerves of steel and a cool head, Benteke waited for the exact split-second that the Chelsea shot-stopper committed himself, and with Courtois prone on the turf he stopped the ball dead before clipping it as casually as anything over him and into the net, sending the already-ecstatic away following into hysteria.
That four seconds of football could prove to be the biggest in Palace’s season. Not only did it set them up to claim a third straight win at the expense of the champions-elect, but it got their star striker back on the goal trail, and it is a path he has continued to follow. Surely a shoe-in for the Premier League’s April Player of the Month, he followed that moment of brilliance in west London up with goals against Southampton and Leicester City before a brace at Liverpool last weekend to drive Palace to the brink of safety.
Reliving the moment that kick-started his season, Benteke said: “It was my favourite goal of the season so far as it was some great skills by myself and it was against my Belgium teammate Thibaut Courtois. Afterwards we had a laugh about it and he said ‘you got me’ because he didn’t expect that from me – it was pure instinct. As soon as I saw Wilf passing me the ball, I knew I was going to do that.
“I feel really good in this team. We are playing really well and I’ve been getting the chance to score more often and now I want to keep it up. I have to give credit to the lads. I can be confident in front of goal, but if they don’t perform then it’s going to be tough, so we are all in a very good shape. I started the season OK and then I had a period where it was a little bit tough, but I don’t know of any player who performs well from the first game of the season to the last. Now I’m in a good way to finish well.”
Liverpool found that out to their cost in more ways than one when the burly Belgian, fuelled with extra incentive, netted twice to record another famous Anfield away day and haunt his former employers, who handed him just 14 starts during a frustrating 12 months on Merseyside. Showing Jurgen Klopp what he was missing, Benteke’s brace took him to 16 goals this season to receive acclaim from both sets of supporters as he left the field.
Looking back on last weekend, he revealed: “I was very happy because it was against my old teammates. I was very motivated because we knew that it was going to be a tough game. It’s one of the biggest wins we’ve had this season, including the ones against Arsenal and Chelsea. I didn’t know that I was going to receive some clapping when I came off at the end, but I knew the reception wasn’t going to be bad because I have respect for the fans and everyone involved at Liverpool. I’m pleased with 16 goals; I’m a striker so sometimes I think I could have scored more but I think it’s not bad.”
Typically pigeonholed as a traditional English centre-forward who thrives on gleefully bulleting the ball into the net with his head, while Benteke continues to show that he is a master at that art – most recently demonstrated with his aerial domination of Yohan Benalouane against Leicester – perhaps that is an easy label to stick on a 6’3” powerhouse. Those 16 goals have been registered in various ways: poaching from a few yards out, casually-dispatching penalties, a half-volley on the turn against Bolton, forcing Fraser Forster into a mistake against Southampton as well as a brave stooping header against Liverpool.
He is delighted that he is beginning to show the Palace fans his entire repertoire, saying: “People know that my strength is with my head, but I’m quite happy because I’ve scored some goals with my head, my right foot and my left so I can see that I’m improving. I’m still young as I’m only 26, and I think I’m more mature and I’m taking more responsibility when I have to.”
Perhaps the biggest test that the 32-time capped international has faced this term came when the goals dried up. Having netted eight in his first 13 league appearances for the Eagles, he would only find the net once between mid-December and the start of this month. Often cutting an isolated figure up front, struggling to cope with a swarm of defenders scuppering his attempts to hold the ball up, chances, results and confidence all dried up during a bleak winter.
He admits it was a tough time to be leading the Eagles’ line, but after Sam Allardyce publically challenged him to score five or six times a month ago, Benteke has done just that.
“I knew that I was going to have a hard time at some point, but I was ready for it,” he said. “Sometimes I felt that I was a bit alone because we had to defend and the wingers had to track the full-backs. It wasn’t easy and was a little bit frustrating because Wilfried and Andros can help you [get goals] but they couldn’t because they had to defend first. Because of the results we had to get some points and you don’t think about the performance. It doesn’t matter if it’s dirty, the three points is all that is important.
“I’m not blaming anyone but no-one was playing at their best level, however now you can see that everyone is performing. There is confidence again; when the manager arrived there was no confidence and there were no results or good performances, so he’s turned everything around.
“His words kind of helped; I have my own challenge to score as many as I can, so it’s not only because he said that. I wanted to show what I could do in training and make sure that he believes in me, so it was a great challenge.”
Another reason for the upturn in fortunes for Benteke and his teammates in 2017 was the fine dealings done by the Eagles in the January transfer window, with the attacker reunited with a familiar face in his former Liverpool teammate Mamadou Sakho. The Frenchman’s presence in the back four strengthened Palace’s defence, and Benteke has been trying to persuade his friend to prolong his stay in south London with just a month of his current loan deal left.
“I’ve tried but we’re not kidding ourselves, we know it’s going to be tough,” he said with a chuckle. “He’s obviously going to get some propositions from some other clubs but I’m sure that at least the chairman and the manager will try to convince him to stay. He’s been brilliant, and him and Luka have made such a difference to us and we’re really thankful for those two players.”
Someone who is set to be at Palace next term is Benteke, who is already looking towards the future. While his first season in SE25 hasn’t gone exactly to plan with a change in manager and subsequent relegation scrap not advertised in the initial brochure tempting him to Selhurst Park, the striker believes that the recent fightback shows there is plenty of potential within the squad. In a warning shot to Premier League defences, he also believes that stashing away a year’s worth of experience at the Eagles will allow him to show everyone just how lethal he can be in front of goal, now he is fully up to speed with what it is like to play for Allardyce’s red and blue army.
Casting an eye towards the future, he said: “First of all we have to make sure that we stay in the Premier League but we’re not far away from that. I think this is a better escape than when I was at Aston Villa. It wasn’t the plan to battle relegation when I came here and started the season, but things can happen in football and we’ve been through that hard time. Now we are in a good position and can be happy because we’ve come far.
“Next season we have to try and aim for the top half of the table and make sure we’re closer to that than the bottom. It will be my second year and I know the way the manager wants me to play and I’ll feel more at home. The language means I stick more with the French speakers but I think we have a good atmosphere within the team, especially now that we’re winning. If we can keep that up, we should do well. A lot of things like that will help me to perform, and I’ll be even better next season.”