'Gentle' Christian Benteke can hurt Arsenal, says Aston Villa's Leandro Bacuna

Aston Villa meet Arsenal in the FA Cup final on Saturday

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When Leandro Bacuna was asked to take a leaf out of Christian Benteke’s book recently, it was not his Aston Villa manager, Tim Sherwood, issuing an instruction on how to intimidate opposition defenders but rather, amusingly enough, the Dutchman’s girlfriend asking him to be nicer.

Benteke’s powerful shoulders may carry the burden of Villa’s hopes of an FA Cup final upset against Arsenal on Saturday, but off the pitch it turns out the big striker is something of a softy.

“He’s not that tough,” said Villa’s Dutch wing-back Bacuna, speaking at the club’s Bodymoor Heath training ground this week. “On the field, he’s moaning and everything, but off the field, he is sweet, he’s gentle. Even my girlfriend, Lynsey, sometimes says, ‘You have to be like Christian, he’s sweet’. That’s the funny part of it.”

Joking aside, Bacuna knows that Villa need Benteke at his fearsome best against Arsenal’s sometimes vulnerable defence. He has struck 13 goals in his last 14 games and underlined his resurgence under Sherwood by terrorising Liverpool in the semi-final, scoring Villa’s equaliser.

“If Christian is playing his best game physically, he is really strong and nobody can get the ball from him,” Bacuna added. “That will be really important for us as a team – if he can hold up the ball and for us to get forward to try and get the ball to him and to other players to score the goals.”

Bacuna is Benteke’s best friend at the club. They were next-door neighbours for a while, their partners are close and they both have nine-month-old babies. They were in regular contact when Benteke was back in Belgium recovering from his Achilles rupture last summer and Bacuna admits he is now doing his bit to persuade Benteke – a rumoured £30m target for Liverpool – to stay at the club this summer. “At Villa, he’s the big man. Maybe if he goes somewhere else, he’s not going to be the big man.”

Leandro Bacuna

Bacuna is enjoying his own Villa Park revival. The converted winger began only one league fixture under former manager Paul Lambert this term, yet heeded his agent’s advice to stay patient and has not looked back since, hitting the first goal of Sherwood’s reign in the FA Cup fifth-round victory over Leicester. “It was his [Sherwood’s] first goal, but I was playing as a left-winger and I’m now at right-back!” laughed the 23-year-old, who is hoping to complete a rare family hat-trick at Wembley.

Bacuna has a minibus-load of friends and family coming to the final, all hoping he can emulate his brothers, Juninho and Johnsen, who have won recent Cup finals in the Netherlands. “My little brother Juninho played in the Dutch Cup final – it was for my old team, FC Groningen, against PEC Zwolle and they won 2-0,” said Bacuna, who attended that game at Feyenoord’s De Kuip stadium. “My bigger brother Johnsen played for his team, Harkemase Boys, in the Dutch Cup final for semi-pros. He won as well – he scored the winning goal in a 4-3, so I need to make it a hat-trick. No pressure on me, then!”

Neither of his siblings faced the pressure of marking Alexis Sanchez, which is Bacuna’s expected task on Saturday. He knows it will be a test of his defensive abilities. “Naturally, I like to go forward, so to go back and defend as well is quite hard. But if a player comes up one against one with me I maybe know in my mind what he is going to do because I have been a winger before. He [Sanchez] is quick, skilful, so it will be hard to play against him, but I am not afraid.”