Benteke Fired Up to End United's Winning Run

Published: 19th December 2014 12:46 PM  |   Last Updated: 19th December 2014 12:46 PM   |  A+A-

It was the moment Christian Benteke announced himself to the Premier League. In his first game, against Manchester United two years ago, he knocked Chris Smalling off the ball with a barge so powerful it could have caused tremors on Spaghetti Junction. He also tormented Rio Ferdinand that evening with a powerful, head-turning performance and the previously unknown pounds 8?million signing from Genk was suddenly the man to watch.
He went on to score 23 goals for Aston Villa in his debut season and was valued at more than pounds 25?million, earning admiring glances from clubs across Europe, and also impressed in a solid second season.
But this year has been one of frustration for the forward and he will attempt to halt Louis van Gaal's resurgent United tomorrow (Saturday), anxious to make up for lost time. Benteke suffered his first serious injury in March after rupturing his Achilles in training and was ruled out of the World Cup, missing a chance to further enhance his reputation on the grand stage.
A red card against Tottenham Hotspur last month proved another frustration but the Belgian has now returned with a point to prove, insisting Villa supporters have still not seen the best of him.
As he prepares for the daunting prospect of United again this weekend (Villa have lost their last seven games against them) he says the support of his family and becoming a father for the first time, with son Jaden born in August, helped him through those dark days on the long road back to full recovery.
"I'm feeling good at the moment but I can improve myself more. I don't like to find any excuse or to say I was injured but I know myself I can do more. I've had no preparation, no pre-season, nothing," he says.
"I've had maybe two months of training and I need some games but I feel good. It's not just about scoring but about playing the way I want. I can definitely get better. United are the favourites on paper and we have to respect them but the respect stops on the pitch. We still need to fight for ourselves and our families who come to watch us. That is something you need to motivate you."
Benteke will not be short of motivation after such a long period of rehabilitation. The injury was a hammer blow to both club and country and there were genuine fears that Villa could be relegated without him. Villa did stay up, however, and Benteke was subsequently granted leave by manager Paul Lambert to return home to Belgium and continue his recovery.
"My faith was important during the injury and missing the World Cup. My mum [Marie-Claire] said it could be worse, maybe I could have never played football again. I just said thank you to God and to look forward and not back," he says.
"It was really hard but the fact I was with my family meant a lot. I forgot about football and focused on working hard. I was in Belgium with good people and had good messages off the country. Not just off football people but everyday people. Everybody was pulling together for me.
"My father [Jean-Pierre] is like me, he doesn't like to show his feelings. I could see that he was hurt and really sad but he just wanted me to come back quickly. He is my hardest critic. Every time when he watches me play he says I can do better - even when I score he says I missed a pass or a chance! It's good because it helps me to prepare better."
There has been one other low moment during his time at Villa. After that stellar debut season in English football, in July 2013 he slapped in a transfer request, days after an ambitious pounds 12?million bid from Spurs was rejected. Daniel Levy, the Spurs chairman, was scared off by Villa's strict pounds 25?million asking price and after constructive talks with Lambert, Benteke signed a new four-year deal worth pounds 50,000 a week.
He has never discussed the transfer request before but admits for the first time it was a grave error of judgment. "I learned a lot from that. Every choice I made I accept but maybe I would not make the same mistake again, and everything that happened before. I've matured now," he says.
"I'm very happy at Villa and I want to stay here in the Premier League. My dream was always to play here and I hope to stay here longer. The manager signed me and gave me a chance. He gives me confidence and I try to give it him back on the field. We have a special relationship, he is really cool with me. He gives me a lot of freedom when I play and I want to repay him, the club and the fans.
"Sometimes I feel like I'm old. I'm still only 24 but I don't forget that football goes fast."
Benteke is acutely aware that there are far more important things than football, however. This week he was one of five Villa players who made the club's annual Christmas visit to Birmingham Children's Hospital and made a donation to the "Let us Play" appeal, which will completely transform its playrooms.
"My childhood was tough [his family fled war-torn Congo when he was aged two] but it wasn't like I was really ill or anything like that," he says. "It means a lot to the children for us to come here at Christmas. It is a special time and we have a responsibility. Football is the best job in the world but when we come to the hospital we can see this is the reality, the real life."
Benteke is now focused on providing some more festive cheer by beating United, with the challenge of preventing a seventh successive win for Van Gaal. While United's recent form looks ominous, Villa are only five points above the relegation zone and Benteke will clearly be vital again this season.
"There is no reason why we can't score against United. That's why the Premier League is the best league, any team can score against anyone," he says.
"We have a new style and we need to try it against a big team and not be afraid. We used to play long ball and the other teams are not stupid - they know the ball would go to Benteke because we would just play long ball. But we now play from the back and we enjoy it. OK, we lost against West Brom last weekend but we played some good football. We have to try it against United."



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