It is customary at Elland Road to mention Luciano Becchio in the same breath as Dimitar Berbatov. Leeds United’s supporters delight in lauding Becchio for costing less than Berbatov and scoring more goals.
For a long time the chant rang true but only half of that comparison is currently accurate. Five months into the Championship season, a player renowned as one of the most reliable at Elland Road is scratching around for the form which made him a darling of the terraces.
Becchio’s ineffective afternoon against Derby County on Boxing Day added fuel to the fire of a question which has burned since he recovered from a hamstring injury in September – what has happened to the striker once seen as the model of consistency?
By Becchio’s own standards, set high during three previous years with Leeds, the first half of this season has passed him by.
Prior to it, the Argentinian’s popularity grew in tandem with his statistics as a centre-forward: 19 goals in his first term at Elland Road, 17 in his second and 20 on the club’s return to the Championship.
Some doubted whether Becchio would cope in a more competitive league or thrive without Jermaine Beckford alongside him but he finished last season as United’s top scorer and earned a new three-year contract. Manager Simon Grayson was as grateful for Becchio’s influence as a robust lone striker as he was for his goals.
Becchio has long been an important member of United’s squad, and it was widely assumed that another productive term in the Championship would depend on a trademark contribution from the former Boca Juniors trainee.
His tally of two goals in 19 appearances – both scored with headers against Crystal Palace and Nottingham Forest – is the clearest indication of how fleeting his impact has been.
Lacking his usual sharpness and aggressive edge, he missed a chance against Derby which he might have scored in his sleep midway through last season.
“Every player goes through stages of their career where they don’t play as well as they can,” Grayson said. “He’s set himself high standards here and he knows what he needs to do to get back to being the Luciano Becchio who was a major force for us last season.
“Sometimes the service hasn’t been there and that isn’t helping but it’s frustrating for him because it’s not like he’s the sort of player who goes away sulking or isn’t bothered when things don’t happen for him. When you see him train and play you see a fully-committed player.
“Everyone gets frustrated when they don’t play to the best of their ability but he knows what’s required and I’m sure he’s not far away from being the player we expect him to be.
“Last season he was a major influence with his goals and his all-round play. That’s why one or two clubs looked at him and thought he’d be a good investment for them but we kept him here and we want him back to his best.”
Becchio’s season can be seen as a partial legacy of the hamstring strain he suffered during a 2-2 draw with Watford in April. The striker came off the bench and scored in the first goal in that fixture at Elland Road but he was substituted before full-time and missed the final four games of the Championship season.
Leeds planned to send him for an immediate operation but Becchio instead spent time recuperating in Spain. When he returned to England for pre-season training in July, signs of his injury were still evident and Becchio underwent belated surgery, consigning him to the treatment room until early September.
Grayson said at the time that he and United’s medical staff had hoped that a period of rest during the early weeks of the summer would “see Luciano right” but club chairman Ken Bates recently blamed Becchio for failing to have an operation as planned. “That’s his fault and he knows it,” Bates said. “He should have had his operation in May as he was told to and he didn’t.”
Whoever ultimately carried the can, Becchio was unable to make his first competitive appearance until September 10 and did not start a league match until the last week of November.
With six successive starts behind him, Grayson is optimistic that the second half of the season will see the forward re-assert himself as an essential cog in United’s machine.
“It’s not easy when you miss pre-season,” Grayson said. “People always talk about it being vital.
“That’s hasn’t helped but I think that over the next few weeks and the next few games we’ll start seeing the real Luciano. He just needs a bit of extra sharpness but that comes over time and with a run in the team.”
The 28-year-old is not alone in finding goals hard to fashion. Andy Keogh, United’s loanee from Wolverhampton Wanderers, has scored twice in 23 games since joining Leeds in August. Ross McCormack has struck 11 times but just once in his last 12 outings. Only Robert Snodgrass, with six goals in seven, has looked anything like prolific.
Leeds have another experienced striker available in Mikael Forssell but nothing has been seen of the Finnish international for two months. He appeared as a substitute towards the end of Leeds’ 1-1 draw with Coventry City on October 18 but has not been included in a matchday squad since.
The 30-year-old is unlikely to feature tomorrow as United and Grayson look to relieve the pressure on them with a first win in four games at Barnsley, and Forssell’s agent has indicated that the Finnish international might look to leave Elland Road in the January transfer window.
Grayson, who signed the former Chelsea striker on a season-long deal in September, said: “He’s been very unlucky and one of the most professional players I’ve worked with.
“Having five substitutes this season doesn’t give you as many options as you’d like, and on the bench you’ve obviously got a goalkeeper, a defender, a midfield player and then two strikers or a striker and a winger. He’s been unfortunate but he’s knocking on my door wanting to play.”