Tuesday 21 November 2017

Skrtel relishing chance to rejoin Benteke battle

Returning defender unfazed by Villa striker's recent return to form

Christain Benteke of Aston Villa challenges Liverpool's Martin Skrtel
Christain Benteke of Aston Villa challenges Liverpool's Martin Skrtel

Chris Bascombe and John Percy

Martin Skrtel will not only be taking on Christian Benteke in the head-to-head that could decide Sunday's FA Cup semi-final, he will have the opportunity to bury a personal demon.

Benteke overwhelmed the Slovakian defender when the pair first met in December 2012, the Belgian scoring twice and creating a third in a 3-1 win at Anfield.

Skrtel lost his place shortly after, his confidence sapped to the point it seemed he may leave the club before regaining the faith of manager Brendan Rodgers.

Now the 30-year-old returns from suspension at Wembley as Liverpool's most accomplished centre-half and says he is relishing the physical threat posed by Villa's rejuvenated target man.

When Benteke's run of eight goals in six games was mentioned, Skrtel said: "It's not bad, to be honest. But I prefer to play against the type of striker like him, or like Diego Costa.

"That is better because for me I don't want to chase the little guys. Obviously I don't want to say it is easier for me, but I enjoy that more.

"When we go to the 50-50 challenge we see who is better in that moment. He is the type of player you have to expect that physical challenge because he is big and strong. He is quick also, so it will be difficult but we are ready for that and we will do everything possible to stop him.


"He is always difficult to play against but we played against him twice this season and we could handle him. I just hope we can do that again. He is playing well at the moment. After they changed the manager, they are all doing well."

Liverpool's new generation need victory to help banish the tag of English football's nearly men. Skrtel is one of only five players left at Anfield who featured in the 2012 FA Cup final defeat to Chelsea.

A first trophy of the Rodgers era would secure a tangible reward for three years of reconstruction since that loss.

"Obviously it is very important for him but not just for him, but also for us the players, the whole team, the club because Liverpool is a big club, one of the biggest in the world, so we need a trophy," said Skrtel.

"Every footballer plays for trophies. This is the big chance and the opportunity for us to get one.

"I just hope we can get one this year. The (League Cup) semi-final against Chelsea was unlucky for us because I thought we were doing well, we created the chances but just couldn't score. Now is our other chance.

"Last season was very difficult to take because until the end of the season we were fighting for the first place and it was very close and we couldn't get it. We had a great season last year, finished second in the league, and if we can get a trophy this season that is going to great for us."

Skrtel's absence has been felt in the last three games, especially against Arsenal when Liverpool were exposed in defence. That he missed three games based on video evidence of a stamp on Manchester United's David de Gea still rankles.

"It was a long ball and I tried to get the ball," he insists. "We were down and losing and tried to score the goal, that was it. you know. He was sliding and I just stood on him. That's it. That is part of football and I couldn't do anything, just take it and wait.

"It was very hard to watch the games. If you see my nails you can tell. It's much better and easier on the pitch than when you are watching on television. I'm just glad the guys got the win at Blackburn and qualified for the semi-final. This season was difficult from the beginning because all of the new players and it always takes time to adapt in the style of the game that we played, and I think that is why the first part of the season wasn't the best but after the Christmas we had a great period of games.

"The manager changed the formation and we started playing well but for me as a defender it is not a big difference if you are playing in a three or a four because the first thing for you is defending and trying to protect your goal.

"We have seen the system with the three at the back was working for us and we will see for the future if we stick on it or change again. I just hope we can finish the season strong. From next season we will be even stronger and better."

For his part, Benteke has spoken of his growing confidence under the guidance of new manager Tim Sherwood.

Earlier this year he looked like a transfer request waiting to happen, growing increasingly frustrated as Villa struggled to create chances and still feeling the effects of a serious Achilles injury suffered last season.

He was dropped by the previous manager, Paul Lambert, for the game against Chelsea in February as Villa plunged towards the relegation zone with the Belgium international enduring a crisis of confidence before Sherwood's arrival.

"Every time I play now I feel like I'm going to score," Benteke said. "I'm full of confidence because I'm playing without pain.

"It's not just about scoring, I'm playing how I want to play. With the gaffer now, he plays more straight, he gives me more responsibility, he says to the lads: 'You have to play more forward, with Gabby (Agbonlahor), you have to use our strength'. It's simple, but I still think I can do more, in every way.


"It was frustrating (earlier in the season) because I knew that I could do better. It was frustrating to play a game with no chances. I'm not that guy who is going to complain and I understood the situation when I was dropped. But now I feel really good. Do people fear me again? Yeah."

Benteke will have talks over his future at the end of the season, but until then his focus is to end the season as strongly as possible.

"Of course I have a lot of pressure on me because I am the striker and I have to score every game," he said.

"Since I came here there has been a lot of pressure. But I deal with it, it's football." (© Daily Telegraph, London)


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