It was not a perfect start to the season for Palace, or personally for Christian Benteke. With zero points and goals after seven games, the Eagles faced an uphill struggle, but now their Premier League fate is in their own hands thanks to the Belgian turning provider rather than scorer. Ahead of the Leicester game he spoke to Alex Howell about relegation battles, goal frustration and a potential generation-defining World Cup.
When you think of Christian Benteke being involved in goals, you picture the burly Belgian leaping over defences and powering missile-like headers past helpless goalkeepers, much like today’s opponents Leicester City have found out to their detriment during the past couple of campaigns.
Yet, this season the goals haven’t come as freely as he would have liked. Having been the club’s top scorer last year by bagging 17 in all competitions, a switch in the team’s style has seen the marksmen undertake a new, unfamiliar role – providing goals for his teammates instead.
Only Andros Townsend has laid on more assists for the Eagles this season than Benteke’s five as he selflessly puts aside personal glory to secure his side’s stay in the top-flight, something that didn’t look likely after a sluggish start.
“In terms of goals it has not been good,” he said, reflecting on 2017/18. “Since I have come to England, no matter where I have been I have always scored, so to not score like I wanted to this year has frustrated me. But in terms of the team play, I have been involved more and work more for the team.
“The way we were playing last year, I would have said that I preferred playing alone as we were putting in a lot of crosses. This year is quite different; the manager wants us to build from the back. As we play with two strikers, that means both have to work together to help the midfielders. I have a different role now, but I don’t mind because the situation of where we were and where we want to go in the league. I have to do that for the team, and fight and go for the challenges to help us get some points.
“I think that this season is my highest number of assists ever. I have been more involved by using my head or my strength to bring others into the game who are in a good position to shoot, rather than myself where I could be in a position to score.”
Last week brought a trip to Watford, a place where Palace have not lost since 2009, and the resulting hard-fought point moved them six clear of the relegation zone with three games to play. Benteke, who came on as a substitute in that encounter, says that the squad know the significance of keeping their league position in their control.
“Watford is never an easy place to go and play,” he said. “After we had a good first half against Brighton, we knew that it was important to keep grabbing some points, especially as there are only three games left now. We got that point and now we need to try to grab as many as we can.
“The manager has a lot of experience; he has worked for a lot of clubs so he knows what the Premier League is about. Since he has come in, he has brought a difference to our shape and we have been a lot more solid. I think he has done a great job, and hopefully we can stay up quickly in the next few weeks.”
The match at Vicarage Road was a tense one, including many incidents involving Wilfried Zaha. The Ivorian international has hit form at a great time, scoring three times in his last four games with a notable brace arriving in the last home game against Brighton and Hove Albion, and his hot-streak has been appreciated by someone with Benteke’s attacking ability.
“Wilf is a major player for us as we all know every action and every chance we create is going to come from him,” he added. “I would say our offensive play is based on him. He is a big player for the team and he has done a lot for this club. We know to have him in this side is a big boost.”
Due to injuries, fixture pile-ups and necessity, Roy Hodgson has used a variety of systems this season, the most used of which has seen the team play with two strikers. Zaha and Benteke have been the most common partnership used by the manager, and that is something the target man has enjoyed as the pair share a good relationship on the pitch, as well as off it.
“It is nice to play with him - I feel less lonely!” Benteke chuckled. “Sometimes as a striker, you don’t get a lot of chances. With him, he will always bring two or three players around him so I can get a little bit of freedom. We didn’t play together last year as he was more of a wide player, but this year I have enjoyed playing with him.”
The last home game was a massive one in all Palace supporters’ calendars as it was the first time the Eagles had welcomed their bitter rivals from the south coast to Selhurst Park in the Premier League. “It was one of the best atmospheres this season,” Benteke suggested. “It was a derby but the atmosphere around the stadium was really nice.
“It was the right time to get a big lift as there aren’t many games left. We wanted to make sure we won that derby because it was our last chance to beat them this season, and that is what we did. It was a big moment for us.
“Whenever we play at Selhurst, the stadium is always rocking. It’s a great place to play, even when you play against Palace as an opposition player as it is a tough place and the fans are always behind the players. You can see that when we play, no matter what, the fans stick behind us. Even when we lost against Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur they were behind us. They play a role as well, and will do in the next three games.”
The first of those sees Leicester City next in Benteke’s sights. Earlier in the season, the Eagles beat the Foxes by picking up a 3-0 win away at the King Power with Benteke getting the opening goal in a near-perfect performance by Hodgson’s team, leading to their most comprehensive victory of the campaign.
“We had a good start and we didn’t give them one chance to score,” the striker reflected. “From the beginning of the game we were solid and compact. It was a great team performance. This time they play away from home, and I don’t think they will come here and attack us straight away or give us space. They will be compact as they know it isn’t an easy place to come, so it is going to be a tactical and tough game.”
At the end of this season, all football fans will be turning their attention towards the World Cup in Russia, and Benteke more than most, having missed the 2014 edition because of a nasty knee injury. There is also the added spice that Belgium, and their ‘Golden Generation’, have been drawn in the same group with England. It is not a competition he is keen to watch from afar again.
Casting his gaze towards the summer’s festivities, he said: “It is up to me now with only three games left. It isn’t that I have to put pressure on myself to prove something because the manager knows my strengths and weaknesses, but I just want to finish as strongly as I can.
“I think it is going to be a great tournament for us, especially with the group that we have. For certain players, it will be their last chance to achieve something big in terms of a tournament experience as some are getting older and they may have other objectives, so it is going to be exciting.”
However, the global showpiece is still a long way off, and Benteke is purely focused on the task ahead - securing Palace’s Premier League status for a record sixth year, something the striker wants to help achieve.
“It is why we look forward to these last weeks,” he added. “We are now ready for Leicester; it won’t be easy because they are a good team, but we are playing at home and anything is possible. If we can get as many points as we can, that would be nice.
“For myself, I just hope I can start scoring. I think that in some games this year I have been good and involved in the game, but I just couldn’t score. But, I am more than sure we are going to stay up. You can see that we are moving in a good direction, we are all together and we want to finish the mission."