By David de Winter – Sports Editor
When Liverpool signed Mario Balotelli a few days before the close of the transfer window, plenty of eyebrows were raised. Not another troublemaker? How will he fit into the club’s playing style? Can he fill the sizeable shoes of Luis Suarez?
At the time I was slightly puzzled as to why Brendan Rodgers had splashed the cash on the Italian. Given that without Suarez, Liverpool were always going to play with only one striker (Daniel Sturridge) and having already purchased Rickie Lambert, Lazar Markovic and Adam Lallana to go with the attacking talents of Philippe Coutinho and Raheem Sterling, Balotelli seemed like a buy just for the sake of it because he was available (one should always be wary of big clubs selling players who should be in their prime – just look at Mesut Özil – Alexis Sanchez to Arsenal being the exception). But ‘No’ I thought, £16 million is by no means an outrageous price for a striker who has plenty of Champions League experience and scored 26 goals in 43 appearances for AC Milan.
One of the many problems for Balotelli is that people are quick to compare him to his striking predecessor, Luis Suarez. Balotelli is not Suarez and will never be. Suarez was, by a country mile, the best player in the Premier League last season and, behind Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, could claim to be the third best player on the planet. He is an all-action frontman who pops up everywhere, constantly harassing defenders and always wanting to be involved. Balotelli is not this type of player but through no fault of his own has been anointed the great Uruguayan’s successor. People expect him to match Suarez in everything he does. No player could achieve that – in some ways Balotelli has inherited a poisoned chalice.
Secondly, because of the second place finish in 2013/14 the expectation level at Anfield has been raised. Now, as a Liverpool fan, I was enchanted (and eventually crestfallen) by last season’s title race, but I don’t think I’m alone in thinking that, if the Reds didn’t slightly over-achieve, then Chelsea and Manchester United definitely under-achieved. Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined Liverpool having the season they did. Yet there was a nagging feeling that they were playing at their maximum whilst others weren’t. Suarez had the best season he possibly could, without him Liverpool would have been nowhere; Steven Gerrard had probably his last great season; Sterling and Sturridge were both unplayable at times – yet Liverpool still failed to win the title. Consequently there was suddenly more focus, more attention on the club and after the summer spending spree, expectations had risen. If Balotelli had joined Liverpool after a 5th or 6th placed finish the previous season then possibly less would be expected of him. As it stands, due to Sturridge’s injury, there has been no ‘easing-in’ period. He has been thrust up as the main man straight away and is still adapting to the team’s style of play whilst having to produce the goods against the likes of Real Madrid. A baptism of fire.
So why was he bought? Following Suarez’s departure, if Rodgers, as expected, was finally planning to play Sturridge as the central striker, why bring in Balotelli at all? It is common knowledge that Balotelli is centre-forward and not much else, essentially a bit of goal-hanger, the complete antithesis to Rodgers’ footballing philosophy. In Liverpool’s pressing system, every player must be committed to the cause – if there is even one passenger, the opposition (if good enough) can pass its way through the team. Balotelli is palpably not a player who does the hard yards – so why take the risk? Ironically the key for Rodgers and Balotelli is Sturridge. When Sterling runs at the defence, the England striker’s intelligent movement drags defenders away which in turn will create more room in which Balotelli can operate effectively. Sturridge’s return can’t come soon enough.
Nevermind swapping shirts at half-time, my main gripe with Mario Balotelli is his tendency to drift through games. He rarely takes games by the scruff of the neck, forcing his will upon the outcome of the match à la Suarez, Wayne Rooney, Sergio Agüero. If the team’s having a quiet day Mario, do something about it; go looking for the ball, make some different runs, take up new positions. Don’t just stand there shrugging your shoulders, gesticulating and generally getting the hump with people. Effort brings reward.
After the Real Madrid defeat, one bookmaker is even offering a Mario Balotelli special. Ladbrokes has the Italian at 6/1 to leave the club in the January transfer window, with the odds shortening to 2/1 for an exit next summer. Ladbrokes must still have some faith in old Mario though because he’s 5/4 to break his Premier League duck at home to Hull City at the weekend.
I, for one, feel it would be a shame if Balotelli were to leave so prematurely in his Liverpool career. He might have had a tough baptism but the man needs time to bed-in and adapt to his new team. I watched his Liverpool début at White Hart Lane and was encouraged by what I saw. His finishing left something to be desired but he got into good positions, showed good pace, awareness, skill, and no lack of application to the cause. Nevertheless what is abundantly clear is that Balotelli’s attitude has to change. The Anfield faithful will forgive a mistake – what they won’t tolerate however is anything less that 100% commitment. If Rodgers can coax that out of the maverick Italian then Liverpool’s £16 million punt just might pay off.
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