It was poised to be a pivotal summer for Paul Lambert’s Aston Villa project, having narrowly escaped relegation in his first season in charge, the spotlight was on him to deliver the signings required to push his young team on, and to ensure the stand-out players from last year’s struggling side remained.
With the countdown to the new season reaching just days, Lambert looks to have succeeded but not after Christian Benteke, his main striker and the top scorer of Villa’s last campaign, threatened to compromise his efforts.
Benteke, scorer of 23 goals in his inaugural year in England following last summer’s move from Genk, had previously looked set to depart from Villa only to renege on his transfer request and sign a new four year deal. He now looks primed to bring his brute force to a second season as the spearhead of Lambert’s promising project.
The figures on Benteke’s new deal saw the Belgian rise to almost double his £20,000 weekly wage, contradicting the new austere approach employed by Randy Lerner and the shrewd Lambert after the extravagant days of Martin O’Neil.
However, there will be little argument on whether the Belgian is worth the flexing of financial structure given his 19 league goals went a long way to helping to secure Villa’s access to the new lucrative domestic television deal worth £70 million to Villa should they replicate last season’s 15th place finish.
Benteke will play a huge role in Villa’s quest to improve on that position, leading an inexperienced team that steered clear of relegation by virtue of a rousing finale to the season in which they won six of their final thirteen games.
They did so with enough vigour and verve to suggest their lowly position throughout the season was false. Benteke scored in each of Villa’s stand-out performances, one against both Stoke and Reading as well as a devastating hat-trick against Sunderland.
He also netted against Chelsea only to mar it by picking up a dismissal for two yellow cards, the first for an elbow on Cesar Azpilicueta and the second for a high foot on John Terry, his fondness for the rugged physical battle with defenders proving his downfall. That game saw his ninth yellow card of the season, a mixture of the 22 year old’s combative style and inexperience that will be ironed out should he mature under the guidance of Lambert.
For all of his robust physicality, Benteke does possess the delicate touch and poise to provide the type of audacious back-heel that set-up Andreas Weimann for his goal in the defeat of Liverpool of Anfield, as well as the 20-yard curling effort he saw nestle into the bottom corner in the same game.
The Belgian striker finished the season on 8 assists and his impressive link-up play and intelligent movement is integral to the utilisation of the electric pace of Weimann and Gabriel Agbonlahor on the counter attack. He also scored 5 headed goals as a result of his imposing 6ft 3 inch frame that is at the supply of Charles N’Zogbia, Ashley Westwood and the ever-improving Fabian Delph.
Lambert has added the Bulgarian winger Aleksander Tonev and Danish striker Nicklas Helenius this summer to add further support to Benteke, the latter the scorer of 18 goals last season for FC Copenhagen and he will ease the burden on the Belgian who scored over a third of Villa’s 47 league goals last season.
The Zaire-born Belgian striker has warmed up for this forthcoming term in typical fashion, scoring seven pre-season goals including two in a friendly against Malaga in which he broke defender Weligton’s collarbone with his first strike. Manager Paul Lambert fired off a warning to Premier League defences after the game, leaving no doubt as to the battle they face in taming the potent Villa striker in the coming months.
It is a Benteke ready for action after a summer marked with questions over his future but he is prepared to answer remaining questions surrounding his ability to produce with the same unerring conviction with which he pledged his future to Lambert’s regime. The World Cup with a fine Belgium side lurks at the end of the campaign which also may see him finally depart Villa for a huge profit on the relative pittance of £7 million they acquired him for.
The 22 year old has recently explained that his pointing to the sky celebration is a show of gratitude to God and a show of faith, it is one we have come to be familiar with and one we expect to be seeing a lot more of over the next 9 months and further beyond.
Written by Adam Gray
Follow Adam on Twitter @AdamGray1250
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