Aston Villa and Christian Benteke meet in unhappy reunion
Christian Benteke has not scored in his last 11 appearances but Aston Villa supporters would feel relieved if he spent the entirety of Sunday's Premier League game on the Liverpool substitutes' bench.
The striker is going through a lean spell for Liverpool, yet the respect that fans of his former club have for him remains undimmed and rightly so -- Benteke scored 49 goals in 101 games for Villa. That's not a total bloated by success in cup competitions against weaker opposition: 42 of those came in 89 league matches. Liverpool have a talent on their hands, albeit one who appears to be going through a crisis of confidence right now.
On Sunday, Benteke makes his first return to Villa Park since his £32.5m transfer last summer. The circumstances are unhappy; Villa are bottom of the league, Liverpool are inconsistent -- just doing enough to stay ahead of Watford and Stoke to remain in the top half of the table -- and the Belgian is struggling to earn a place in Jurgen Klopp's starting lineup. Jan. 2 was the last time the coach included him in the starting XI.
At this point it's difficult to establish which party, if any, has really benefited from the deal. Villa lost a goalscorer who had contributed so much to helping the club avoid relegation for three consecutive seasons, and failed to find a worthy replacement -- don't forget Liverpool paid only half the fee straight away, with rest coming over the course of the contract. The Merseyside club paid a large amount of money for a player who doesn't really seem to fit in -- it's not too late for him to improve of course, but even when the transfer was confirmed, it didn't feel a perfect match.
As for the Belgian national team, heading into Euro 2016 it must be a source of concern that one of their star strikers could enter the tournament in poor form. Indeed, the solitary "winner" at this moment could be international teammate Romelu Lukaku, who has eased to 20 goals for Everton so far this season and appears to have the upper hand in the Belgium pecking order. Lukaku is comfortable in his surroundings and thriving because of it. By that same logic, Benteke would have been better served giving Villa one more season and then exploring his options in the next transfer window.
Worse than finding goals hard to come by, Benteke seems to have become the scapegoat for Liverpool's failings this season. Blame for the FA Cup defeat to West Ham on Tuesday was aimed at him, and there have long been rumblings about the 25-year-old from supporters. It's fair to say he had a number of doubters to win over from the off and hasn't done that, though in stark terms six league goals in 12 starts is hardly shabby. That actually makes him Liverpool's joint league scorer in the campaign, alongside £29m Roberto Firminio, who has made four more starts.
It says much for the admiration that Villa supporters have for Benteke that I suspect many would like to see him succeed at Liverpool, which is a rare phenomenon concerning outgoing players. In contrast to being perfectly happy if Fabian Delph -- after all his backtracking and sidestepping -- fell on his backside at Manchester City, it's not at all satisfying to see Benteke criticised and prematurely labelled a flop. At Villa he had sequences of games in which he looked out of touch, half-fit (often he was, coming back too early from injuries) and ineffective, but could then embark on a run of goals in a succession of matches and be virtually unplayable. The difference was that he was able to play his way back to form.
Villa have obviously missed Benteke badly. Take his goals away and the impact on the club is clear -- relegation looms on the horizon like the darkest of clouds. In his absence, no single player has been able to step up and replace him. Jordan Ayew and Rudy Gestede have nine league goals between them; the former is suspended against Liverpool and the latter likely to miss out with a hamstring injury. Which means Gabby Agbonlahor, who partnered Benteke frequently during this three seasons in Birmingham, will lead the forward line again.
Agbonlahor did well against Norwich, scoring his first goal for 11 months. Although his best days have passed, a straightforward central striking role suits him -- playing right on the toes of opposition defenders and using his pace to get in behind them. Villa manager Remi Garde will rely on Carles Gil and Jordan Veretout to provide the creative vision to support Agbonlahor, and midfield pair Ashley Westwood and Idrissa Gana to get a measure of control on the game. It worked in the 2-0 win over Norwich but Liverpool, despite their inconsistent nature, are a stronger side. Klopp still has talented individuals -- Daniel Sturridge is fit again, so too Philippe Coutinho -- who can turn a game.
For Villa, it's imperative that they start stringing together sequences of wins and another three points would really kickstart belief and momentum. Recently, Liverpool have always found a way to win at Villa Park -- victorious in their last four visits here. Given that favourable record, it might be a calculated gamble to play Benteke from the start; Villa would be happier if their former hero just sat the whole afternoon out.
Kevin Hughes covered Premier League football at Match magazine and was later deputy editor of Sport. You can follow him on Twitter @KevHughesie.