Can Mario Balotelli replace Luis Suarez; turn Liverpool into title contenders?

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On Monday Liverpool did what everyone told them they should do all summer long: replace Luis Suarez.

After selling their prized Uruguyan assest to Barcelona for $128 million in July, Brendan Rodgers used that money to bolster his squad with talented, but not talismanic players, for the Premier League and UEFA Champions League challenge ahead. However, he neglected one area… until now.

[RELATED: Balotelli signs for Liverpool]

Mario Balotelli is back in England, as Liverpool signed up the enigmatic Italian forward for $26 million from AC Milan. That’s a bargain for a player of his caliber. It is a high risk, high reward buy from Liverpool as Rodgers will look like a genius if it comes off, but if Balotelli’s old ways return, there will be an ‘I told you so’ moment. What could possibly go wrong?

Balotelli, 24, starred for Manchester City as a youngster, scoring 30 goals in 80 appearances for the Citizens between 2010-13. His antics on and off the pitch, we will get into that shortly, mean he isn’t everyone’s cup of tea but you can’t argue with his play.

[VIDEO: How will Liverpool cope without Suarez?]

On his day Balotelli is one of the most powerful, exhilarating and clinical marksmen in world soccer. Liverpool have taken a risk to get him on board at a snippet of what he should actually cost. Balotelli has baggage but in recent years he has matured and is certainly worth the gamble Liverpool have taken. Are Liverpool genuine title contenders now that Balotelli is on board? Absolutely.

Without Suarez, many wondered where the goals would come from for the Reds. Sure, Daniel Sturridge scored 21 in the PL last season but aside from him, veteran Rickie Lambert is their only other option up top. Balotelli has PL experience and if he can play as the lone front man with Sturridge underneath him, the duo have the potential to form a pacey, powerful and deadly partnership. Forget S.A.S. what about Balo & Studge? Balotelli’s arrival suggests Liverpool will be there and there abouts when all is said and done this season. Many, including myself, were questioning their top four credentials after failing to nail down a direct replacement for Suarez. Now they have Balotelli, he could hold the key to another title charge, as Liverpool have jumped ahead of Arsenal as the main rivals to Chelsea and Manchester City for the PL crown.

[RELATED: Profile – Mario Balotelli]

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Balotelli posing for a ‘selfie’ with pitch invaders during AC Milan’s U.S. tour.

Losing Suarez’s 31 goals was set to hit Liverpool hard and in their opening game against Southampton, they looked less dynamic going forward but sturdier at the back. With Steven Gerrard and Lucas sitting in front of a new-look back four, the Reds may still take a more cautious approach this season compared to the 101 goals they belted in during the 2013-14 campaign. However with Balotelli on board, they have that ‘x-factor’ back that Suarez provided. Balotelli is the kind of player who will go missing for large chunks of games but then, bang, he will crash in a volley or go on an electric run to tear through the opposition defense.

Alongside Sturridge he would add a real physical presence up front and the fact that Balotelli prefers to drift in and out of midfield, pop up on the wing and get on the ball will suit the way the Reds play. In their fluid 4-3-3 formation, Balotelli can slot into a number of positions but he would thrive as the lone forward. With Philippe Coutinho, Sturridge and Raheem Sterling buzzing in around his flick ons, the Reds could once again rip opposition defenses apart. Against Saints on the opening day, Liverpool looked slightly stagnant going forward. By hook or by crook, Balotelli will get things going. He isn’t afraid to shoot and has scored 30 goals in 54 games for AC Milan over the past season-and-a-half. Mario also isn’t afraid to lash out against teammates, opponents and his manager. With that in mind, Sturridge and Suarez would often shout at each other during Liverpool games last season and be rather annoyed. Balotelli won’t stand for that and it will be very interesting to see how his relationship with Sturridge develops in the early months. Rodgers and his coaching staff will have to put an arm around Balotelli and make him feel loved if they’re going to get the best out of him.

[RELATED: Can Liverpool replicate success?]

In many ways, Balotelli was the final piece of the jigsaw for Rodgers after an impressive summer rebuild. Liverpool needed to bolster their defense, so in came Dejan Lovren, Alberto Moreno and Javier Manquillo to try and offset the goals lost by Suarez by hopefully conceding fewer. Yet a talismanic forward was still missing. Well, until ‘Super Mario’ arrived.

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Source: Liverpool FC

Was it a gamble to take Mario on board? 100 percent. On the pitch he can lose his head, get silly red cards, sulk and will frustrate the heck out of fans. However, ask any Manchester City fan what they think of Balotelli. They all love him. His enigmatic figure, along with his talent, has taken him to stardom. The man who was allergic to grass, shot fireworks out of his bathroom window, posts pictures of himself dancing, reading a book and ironing, plus plenty of other crazy moments are just the tip of the iceberg as we try to unravel the mystery of Mario. Suarez was obviously a genius on the ball but his biting obsession, alleged racist insults and other issues off the pitch made him a volatile character. Balotelli is in the same mold as Liverpool’s former Uruguayan frontman and has the potential to become as much of, if not a bigger, cult hero than Suarez was at Anfield.

One of Balotelli’s finest, and most memorable moments, sums him up. After scoring for City against arch nemesis Manchester United at Old Trafford in 2011, Balotelli lifted his shirt to reveal a simple message. ‘Why always me?’ Well, Mario, it’s because your talent promises so much and your temperament threatens to derail it.

Without doubt Balotelli is one of the most interesting characters in world soccer and now he will lead Liverpool’s charge for silverware. He is the man they were missing and perhaps the only player crazy enough to think that he could replace Luis Suarez. If he can do it, Liverpool may have just got the bargain of the past decade. If not, everyone will blame Mario. That’s just the way it works.

Conte: Costa “situation was very clear” in January

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At this point, there is no doubt Diego Costa‘s future lies away from London and Stamford Bridge.

Chelsea manager Antonio Conte broke his silence on the Brazilian-born Spain international striker, saying he’s been ready to move on from Costa since January, when Costa and Conte had a disagreement following a big-money offer from Chinese club Tianjin Quanjian during the winter transfer window.

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“I don’t like to talk about players who are not here but the only thing I can tell you [is that] in January, the Costa situation was very clear, for the club for him and his agent,” Conte told reporters Friday. “For me the situation is closed.”

It’s an amazing turn of events after Costa scored 20 Premier League goals in Chelsea’s title-winning 2016-2017 season, including 14 goals through the end of December. But after falling out with Jose Mourinho a year earlier, the same issue happened again under Conte, with Costa proving much less effective down the stretch.

But Conte and Costa were able to put their differences aside on the field, photographed multiple times hugging after wins, as well as after winning the title.

Costa is reportedly now agitating for a move back to his former club Atletico Madrid, but the Spanish club’s transfer ban until the next window complicates matters. In a World Cup year, would Costa be willing to sit out half a season just to leave Chelsea?

If Costa’s time in the Premier League is up, he’ll go down as one of the league’s best pound-for-pound goalscorers. He scored 52 goals in 89 Premier League appearances, with seven more cup goals in his three-year spell at Chelsea.

And if he is gone, defenders across the Premier League will sure be happy to wave goodbye.

Sparta Prague signs France midfielder Rio Mavuba

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PRAGUE (AP) Sparta Prague says it has signed France midfielder Rio Mavuba to a three-year contract.

The 33-year-old Mavuba comes from French club Lille, which he joined in 2008. Before that, he played for Bordeaux and Spanish club Villarreal.

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Mavuba was on the France team at the 2014 World Cup.

He is the 10th player signed by Sparta after Italian coach Andrea Stramaccioni took charge in May.

Mexico 1-0 Honduras: Pizarro strikes early to put El Tri in Gold Cup semifinals

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Mexico had little trouble dispatching Honduras as El Tri won 1-0 in Glendale, AZ and eased into the Gold Cup semifinals.

Just four minutes into the game, Mexico took the lead as they got Honduras on its heels, with Rodolfo Pizarro sticking the ball in at the far post at the end of a scramble. Jesus Duenas carved a ball through the defense, and while Elias Hernandez whiffed on the tap-in, Pizarro was right behind him to finish the chance.

Mexico settled in after scoring, while Honduras tried to out-muscle El Tri, with the latter receiving a pair of yellow cards in the first 45 minutes. There were precious few other chances throughout the first half, with Honduras completely incapable of creating anything in the attacking half.

Mexico continued to dominate out of the halftime break, but they lost Monterrey midfielder Jesus Molina in the 65th minute with discomfort, replaced by Chaka Rodriguez. The best moment for Honduras as they chased the game late came in the 78th minute as Jose Corona made a spectacular save when substitute Alexander Lopez nearly scored directly from a corner. They came close again in stoppage time after a set-piece as Alfredo Mejia scuffed a shot agonizingly wide.

Honduras ended their Gold Cup without a single goal scored. They technically defeated French Guyana 3-0 in the group stage, but that came on the typical forfeit scoreline, whereas the actual game played ended in a 0-0 draw.

Meanwhile, Mexico will take on Jamaica in the semifinal in a rematch of last tournament’s final.

Manchester United beats City 2-0 in preseason Derby

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Manchester is Red, at least for the preseason.

Manchester United used quickfire first-half goals from Romelu Lukaku and Marcus Rashford to topple Manchester City 2-0 in Houston as part of the International Champions Cup.

The first half-hour saw plenty of action, but nothing in terms of goals. New Manchester City full-back Kyle Walker made a great run to cut down Rashford before he could shoot, while goalkeeper Ederson was required to keep out Paul Pogba.

On the other end, Chris Smalling was active often, nearly conceding a penalty with a pull on the shirt of Patrick Roberts, while also cleaning up after a high City press caught United in their own defensive third.

[ MORE: West Ham signs Chicharito ]

Just before halftime, United went in front thanks to their prized new striker. Pogba launched an absolutely brilliant long-ball, and Lukaku streaked to meet it, heading past a charging Ederson before cutting from a tight angle into the empty net before defenders could recover.

Immediately after, Rashford put United 2-0 up on a cool finish from the right with space after a ball from Henrikh Mkhitaryan. The score is Rashford’s third goal of the United States tour.

After a host of changes at halftime that saw City keep just four players on the field, it didn’t help as United kept on the pressure. Rashford almost scored an accidental long-range chip as his long-ball to the far post nearly went in, but Ederson tipped it over. Moments later, Lukaku thundered a howitzer into the crossbar.

United made a host of changes past the hour mark, and they nearly had another if not for the offside flag raising on Phil Jones after a double-save by Ederson. City had a big chance in the final 10 minutes, as a great ball from Samir Nasri found Gabriel Jesus, but the Brazilian put it well over.

Ederson had a solid game in net for Manchester City despite the loss, while Kyle Walker and 17-year-old City youth product Brahim Diaz also stood out. For United, Henrikh Mkhitaryan was bright as were Paul Pogba and goalscorer Marcus Rashford.

LINEUPS

Manchester United: De Gea (Romero 45′); Valencia (Fosu-Mensah 77′), Lindelöf (Bailly 45′), Smalling (Jones 45′), Blind (Darmian 45′); Herrera (Fellaini 62′), Pogba; Rashford (Martial 62′), Mkhitaryan (Carrick 62′), Lingard (Pereira 78′); Lukaku.

Manchester City: Ederson; Adarabioyo (Otamendi 45′), Kompany (Mangala 45′), Fernandinho, Yaya Toure (Sane 45′), Walker, Foden (Zinchenko 74′), De Bruyne (Diaz 45′), Sterling (Jesus 45′), Aguero (Stones 45′), Roberts (Nasri 45′).