The harsh lessons of Benteke's request

Posted by Kevin Palmer

Aston Villa supporters might be lamenting Christian Benteke's decision to hand in a transfer request after just one, solitary season of success as their leading light, yet his departure will merely confirm a galling reality for the repositioned midlands giants.

While Villa manager Paul Lambert might have hoped his success in placing Benteke on the Premier League stage and honing his talents in such impressive fashion last season would inspire a modicum of loyalty from the 22-year-old striker, the truth is such generosity of spirit no longer exists in the modern game.

- Benteke disappointment for Villa

So, as rumours began to circulate as early as last Christmas -- a little over three months into his stint at Villa Park -- that Benteke was a target for Tottenham and Arsenal, it quickly became clear that Lambert and his cohorts faced a fight to hang on to the asset they paid a reported £7 million to sign from Genk on transfer deadline day last August.

"I was surprised Benteke went to Villa because we had looked at him along with many other clubs," commented Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger at the time, who was joined by a list of high-profile rivals who baulked at signing a striker whose raw qualities led many to believe that he was not ready to shine in the Premier League from the off.

As it turns out, Benteke was more than ready to light up England's top flight, and after scoring the 19 goals that kept Lambert's men in the top flight against the odds last season, few will be surprised that he has already decided the time is right to move on.

Sadly for Villa, this kind of scenario is the by-product of their slide down the Premier League's pecking order in recent years, with the initial period under the management of Martin O'Neill and their flirtation with Champions League qualification now a distant memory. In fact, those halcyon days were just three short years ago.

Since then, Lambert and his predecessor, Alex McLeish, were fully aware that the ethos has changed dramatically when they accepted the challenge of becoming Villa manager, with the club's policy of signing young players and taking risks on potential reaping the most handsome dividends with their capture of Benteke.

Hanging on to a hit-man who looked to be too good for a club of Villa's diminished status always threatened to be improbable and, as news broke that Benteke had asked to leave, the dilemma Lambert and the crowned 1982 European champions find themselves in was brought into glaring view.

All observers will agree that Lambert did a magnificent job in draining the best out of a youthful team and inspiring them to some stirring performances as they saved their Premier League skins in the final weeks of last season. However, the talisman of that success has just shown that their plan for the future has a flaw in its makeup.

Even if Villa's prudent business model is commendable, their football structure will be undermined when the shining light of their ambitious project walks away the moment he enjoys a few months of success in Villa's famous claret-and-blue livery. Yes, the club will make a lot of money from a sale, probably as much as £25 million, but Benteke's departure will leave many to conclude Villa have become a selling club.

Hard though that is for Villa supporters to accept, the club's realigned ambitions do not befit a player of Benteke's rising status right now.

Benteke will argue that Villa are not currently set up to satisfy his career ambitions, and he would make that claim with some justification.

While staying at Villa would ensure he is the star of their team and guaranteed a starting spot each week, the reality is that a mid-table finish and a decent cup run is the best Lambert and his troops can hope for next season.

Harsh though it might be, Benteke performed too well in his first season at Villa, and that success story will now ensure his stay at the club will be as brief as it was impressive.

He displayed strength, drive and finishing ability in his first season at Villa, yet there is no certainty that this leggy striker will continue to thrive if he is taken out of the Villa side he was given so much support in last season.

Throw this still-developing striker into a side challenging for a top-four finish and he might not have the temperament to handle the pressures of such a demanding role just yet.

From Villa's perspective, they may be selling Benteke at a moment when his value is at its premium, and while they would relish the chance to keep him for one more year, he would be something of a risky buy if a £25 million price tag is slapped on his head.

Reports suggest Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho is in the mix to sign Benteke, and if that proves to be the case, the oft-used comparisons with Didier Drogba will be given an airing once more. Mourinho clearly believes he needs a powerhouse target man among his armoury at Chelsea, and with Demba Ba rumoured to be surplus to requirements, he may view Benteke as a forward who could lead the Blues line for many years to come.

By offering another Belgian striker as sweetener -- namely Romelu Lukaku -- Chelsea could go directly to the front of the queue for Benteke.

Arsene Wenger's stated admiration for the player suggests Arsenal could get in the mix for his signature, yet rumours that Liverpool have targeted Benteke seem unlikely, as manager Brendan Rodgers continues to build his forward line with a subtle rather than powerful appearance.

Spurs are also likely to be in for the player as the capital clubs battle it out. Andre Villas-Boas spent last season painfully short of striking options and over-reliant on Gareth Bale. Benteke would fit the criteria demanded by chairman Daniel Levy of new signings, and Spurs could dangle the carrot of Jermain Defoe in return.

The danger of a move to Chelsea would be that Benteke might not be a first-choice striker next season and that would be a gamble in World Cup year, so a move to Tottenham might emerge a better career switch.

Benteke has a chance to shine for a talent-laden Belgium side at next summer's World Cup in Brazil, so he needs to make sure he joins a club that are signing him as a player for now and not the future.

Of course, leaving the settled environment he excelled in at Villa comes with inherent risks, as there is no guarantee his goals will be transported successfully. Yet there is no turning back on his decision now, and he will have to prove himself all over again at a new club when the new Premier League season gets underway.

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