Wednesday 13 December 2017

James Lawton: Benteke holds final key to Rodgers future

Striker must hit ground running to prove Reds boss has not made one last failed gamble

Liverpool’s new signing Christian Benteke alongside rehab fitness coach Jordan Milsom (left), Fabio Borini and Emre Can
Liverpool’s new signing Christian Benteke alongside rehab fitness coach Jordan Milsom (left), Fabio Borini and Emre Can
James Lawton

James Lawton

Christian Benteke was born in Kinshasa, the site of Muhammad Ali's historic Rumble in the Jungle and in his most combative moments he bears more than a passing resemblance to Mike Tyson.

But can he deliver the old one-two his new sponsor Brendan Rodgers needs so desperately?

It is one of the key questions in Premier League football and if the imagery might be stretched somewhere near to breaking point soon enough Liverpool manager Rodgers is surely forgiven if caught praying that his £32.5m signing comes off his stool fighting at the start of the new season.

Such aggression, not always the most pervasive hallmark of the 24-year-old Belgian international has emerged impressively from time to time, not least when driving Rodgers into his embattled corner in last season's FA Cup semi-final against Aston Villa.

Rodgers looked like a manager losing his grip on the Wembley touch-line when Benteke's utterly assured equaliser helped set up relegation-threatened Villa's devastating victory. Some moments of crisis, and impending defeat, run deeper than others and clearly this one reached deep into the Liverpool manager's psyche.

The evidence of his understanding that he occupied a perilous situation was written all over the second highest purchase in the history of the Anfield club. Andy Carroll, at £35m, was Kenny Dalglish's big, losing gamble and now Rodgers piles up at least as many betting chips against the name of Benteke.

It is the move on which Rodgers knows he will be judged quite relentlessly in the coming weeks. If Benteke can find the best of his aggressive ringcraft, or rather a natural predatory streak in front of goal which showed distinct signs of recovery last season after one of those extended pauses which often follow a strong initial impact, Rodgers' fight for survival will receive vital oxygen. He will be seen to have shown nerve and good judgment under extreme pressure. If not it is harder than ever to see him avoiding a count of 10.

Elsewhere in his £75m survival splurge, which may see the additional investment in Paris Saint-German left back Lucas Digne, Rodgers increased involvement in the signing process seems to have produced some encouraging results.

Brazilian Roberto Firmino won some favourable reviews in the Bundesliga at Hoffenheim, not least from his former A-list compatriot Ronaldinho, and at £29m some see him as a natural ally for the creative Phillipe Coutinho. Firmino reports that it was Coutinho who persuaded him that Anfield was the proper stage to launch himself, finally, as a big player on a big stage.

It's a possibility augmented by the promise of sharpened fight and industry that comes with the arrival of James Milner from Manchester City. Milner offers graft and heart, Firmino and Coutinho a sustained pursuit of superior touch and vision and in the signing of Nathaniel Clyne Rodgers looks to have brought a considerable and much needed stiffening of an often catastrophically porous defence.

So far, so good as a workable survival strategy but Rodgers scarcely needs telling that if he is to truly regain the kind of momentum that earned him the manager of the year award the season before last Benteke plainly has to strike hard and early - and consistently.

Otherwise, he will be seen, as Rodgers' final mis-step, quite as damaging as the one Dalglish made when he countenanced the spending of the bulk of the Fernando Torres transfer fee on the ill-fated Carroll.

Both Benteke and his old mentor at Villa, Paul Lambert, believe he has made a career change of huge potential.

Says Benteke: "It's hard to show your emotion when you have done something like this, something of great importance to your future, but of course I am happy. I think it is the right move for me because I had a good chat with the manager and I wanted to be part of his project. I'm very happy to be here and I'm thankful the owners made such a massive effort to sign me.

"I know Liverpool is a big story. I know all the trophies they have won. I have come here to reach some great goals."

Whatever the scepticism, the sense that Rodgers has invested too much in an unproven force in the wake of Luis Suarez and Raheem Sterling and the chronic nature of Daniel Sturridge's physical frailty, Benteke is certainly not without eye-catching credentials, a point his old manager Lambert was quick to make yesterday.

When Benteke first charged at Premier League defences, Lambert was hailed not so much for shrewd business - £5.5m paid to Belgian League club Genk - but something close to a brazen piece of larcency. Now, with stirrings of that first impressive impact, Benteke still has a set of impressive statistics - 49 goals for Villa in 101 appearances.

Lambert says: "I think Christian will be great at Anfield. He phoned me yesterday and I had a good chat with him. I'm delighted for him because he has got the move to a really big club. I hear reports that he can only score from cross-balls. Well, Christian Benteke will score for Liverpool. The chances they create, he will score. He will score all types of goals and you will know this if you look at how he plays.

Read more: Seven things you may not know about Liverpool signing Christian Benteke

Read more: Comment: Benteke will determine Brendan Rodgers' fate at Liverpool

"This was especially so in his first year at Villa, where he was a phenomenon. He was third behind Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi in goalscoring ratio. I think he is one of the best number nines I have seen in a long time. I just said to him on the phone, go and enjoy it - and that he will love the club and the supporters and that he will get loads of chances."

For Rodgers it is a sumptuous, career-saving prospect - and no doubt some relief from the record which shows that for every Ian Rush and Robbie Fowler and Michael Owen, Anfield has been torture for so many big-name strikers trailing their glory. Most recently, Mario Balotelli has delved into his ragbag of eccentricity, Ricky Lambert has laboured painfully to find an old spark, and when you go back down the list the number of misadventures are hardly balm to Rodgers' peace of mind.

Torres worked wonderfully at Anfield, so did Suarez, but such virtuosity in front of goal has so often been elusive.

El Hadji Diouf once glittered across the face of a World Cup. At Liverpool he scored three times in 55 League games. Fernando Morientes arrived a hero of Real Madrid. He struggled for eight goals in 41 games.

Such performance haunted an expectant Anfield. From Christian Benteke, it would almost certainly see off Brendan Rodgers.

Irish Independent

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