It is a measure of Christian Benteke's ongoing value to Crystal Palace that, in a summer of remarkable upheaval in south London, one of the club's first acts was to provide the striker with a new deal. Benteke's two-year contract was sorted more than a month before Palace had found a manager, and with more than an entire team's worth of players also looking to resolve uncertain futures.
Not so long ago, such a demonstration of faith in Benteke would have been treated with derisory sneers from the wider footballing world, and indeed from many of the Palace supporters. At the very least, few of those fans would have regarded his contractual situation as a priority for a club in the midst of one of the most dramatic rebuilds in Premier League history.
This, after all, was a player who had notched just six goals in 71 league appearances from 2017 to 2020, and a striker who had been largely written off as a goalscoring force. To some of the more cruel observers who lurk in the shadows of social media, Benteke had become little more than a punchline to their jokes.
And yet, if Benteke was not so averse to showing his emotions on a football pitch, he would be the one smiling now. The steely demeanour can only mask so much, and there can be no doubt that the Belgian is enjoying himself this season as he continues one of the more unlikely resurgences of recent years. His two goals against Burnley last weekend took him to five strikes in his last six matches for club and country, and brought him to 11 league goals since the end of February.
As he prepares to face former club Aston Villa, Benteke therefore does so as one of the league's in-form centre-forwards. He may not be the player he was in those exhilarating, defence-obliterating days at Villa, where he struck 49 goals in 101 games, but he is showing he can still be effective and threatening as he enters what could be a third chapter of his Premier League career.
The rise, the fall and now the rebirth. Benteke is back, playing for the same club but essentially a totally new side in south London, where Patrick Vieira has transformed the style of play almost beyond recognition. Palace are more aggressive as a team now, creating more chances and playing more passes, and Benteke is no longer as isolated as he was for much of Roy Hodgson's tenure.
"As a forward, when your manager wants to be on the front foot, and to create chances, that is what you want to hear," said Benteke in August, and so it has proved in the subsequent months. He has been helped further by the presence of the energetic Conor Gallagher , the first Palace midfielder in years who regularly drives into the opposition penalty box.
This is not to say that Vieira's arrival is the sole reason for Benteke's return to prominence, as the striker had first rediscovered his goalscoring form at the end of last season. But there is no question that Palace are now a more free-flowing outfit, and that it suits their strikers to have more inventive players on the pitch. A new Palace has helped Benteke to look more like his old self.
For the 30-year-old, this change in approach has allowed him to focus more on what he has always been best at: attacking crosses and making a nuisance of himself in the box. He is currently taking fewer touches per game than in any of his previous five seasons at Selhurst Park, and has never played fewer passes per game for Palace. He is less involved, then, but much more dangerous.
"In the air he is one of the best, if not the best, in the league," said Vieira earlier this season. "This is a powerful weapon to have in our squad."
It will come as some surprise to Benteke's detractors that he has now scored more Premier League goals than the likes of Eden Hazard, Fernando Torres and Carlos Tevez. With 86 to his name, Benteke is only one goal behind Dennis Bergkamp in the all-time scoring charts, and only two behind Cristiano Ronaldo. At the current rate of scoring, Benteke could reach his century before the Manchester United forward.
It is one of those immutable cliches of football that form is temporary and class is permanent. The truth is that Benteke has stretched this adage to its absolute limit in recent seasons, when his finishing disintegrated and Hodgson suspected him of trying too hard to "put things right" following his move from Liverpool. For three years, Benteke looked like a man in desperate need of a fresh impetus. As it turns out, he found it by staying right where he was.
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