Belfast Telegraph

Subdued striker is key for Villa

Striker Christian Benteke has been at the heart of Aston Villa's renaissance after shooting to them to brink of Barclays Premier League safety and FA Cup glory.

The softly-spoken, almost shy, forward never offers many clues and you may sense he feels more comfortable in front of 80,000 fans rather than a handful of press ahead of Villa's FA Cup semi-final with Liverpool.

But after eight goals in eight games under Tim Sherwood following Saturday's winner in the 1-0 victory at Tottenham, the 24-year-old is back to his best.

Sunday's clash is Villa's first trip to Wembley in five years, since losing the FA Cup semi final to Chelsea, and Benteke arrives ready.

Having scored just three times this season before Sherwood's February arrival he looked a shadow of his former self.

Doubts were creeping in about his fitness and commitment to the cause as Villa struggled before Paul Lambert's February sacking.

A player who had scored 23 times in his debut season in 2012-13 was rightfully being questioned.

Villa's slip into the bottom three in February was the end for Lambert and Benteke rarely looked like the man to save them.

He had even been benched in the Scot's final two games, as the ex-manager began to doubt him.

Villa's languid style, after Lambert decided to change to a possession game mid-way through the season, did not suit the striker though.

Chances were at a premium and Benteke was still regaining match fitness following a ruptured Achilles he suffered last April, an injury which forced him to miss Belgium's World Cup campaign.

Only now he is fully fit and Sherwood, Lambert's replacement, is reaping the rewards. The manager insists Benteke is a "one in two" man and with 39 goals in 77 top flight starts it is hard to argue.

The new manager's style is to gravitate everything to Benteke, he is the focal point and his form for the ex-Tottenham boss underlines that.

Sherwood revived Emmanuel Adebayor at Spurs last season and has done the same to Benteke.

Throw in a goal in Belgium's 5-0 win over Cyprus in Euro 2016 qualifying and he has nine goals in his last eight outings.

A blossoming partnership with Gabby Agbonlahor, which Benteke believes helps "destroy" defences only adds to his game.

And the striker is their chief threat again as they prepare to face Liverpool.

Mamadou Sakho is out and following Kolo Toure's nightmare against Arsenal this month Agbonlahor, and especially Benteke, will fancy their chances.

Benteke's swashbuckling style on the pitch contrasts to his demeanour off it where he is eager to stay out of the limelight.

Compare that to Raheem Sterling's flirtation with the spotlight this season and Villa's near-silent assassin is a manager's dream.

Sterling's goal in Monday's 2-0 win over Newcastle will not cure all his ills but with Daniel Sturridge a doubt he remains Liverpool's biggest Wembley weapon.

Two goals in his last eight games - along with his first England strike in the 4-0 win over Lithuania - shows he is producing.

Despite his recent form, though, off field issues have dominated.

Footage of him appearing to take 'laughing gas' and pass out unconscious emerged online during Monday's game.

The ramifications are yet to be seen but Sterling must be aware of the damage it could cause of his reputation, not least his career.

Liverpool will hope Sturridge will be fit after he missed Monday's 2-0 win over Newcastle with a hip injury.

The forward has scored five goals in 19 games of an injury-hit season which has never got going.

He suffered a thigh problem on international duty in September and then suffered setbacks with his calf and thigh.

Much like Benteke this season, Sturridge has been blighted by injury after 28 goals and a fearsome partnership with Luis Suarez last year.

At Anfield now there is a no strike force with that potency as Rickie Lambert and Fabio Borini struggle to make an impact.

But in Agbonlahor and Benteke Villa have a partnership to make a difference.

And while they must be wary of Liverpool Villa - with a firing Benteke - should not be considered Wembley underdogs.


From Belfast Telegraph