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.

Foul or flop? Player “headbutts” referee, is sent off

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Well, there must be something in the water down in Brasilia, because things got a little weird this evening.

Flamengo drew with Vasco da Gama 2-2, but that was just the start.

In the 54th minute, with Vasco da Gama leading 1-0 at Estadio Nacional Mané Garrincha, 36-year-old Luis Fabiano was sent off for “headbutting” the referee. Headbutting is in quotes because looking at the video, it certainly appears there was little to no contact, and the referee flops.

Yes, the referee flopped. Take a look:

To be fair, Fabiano was already on a yellow, so getting in the referee’s face even without the headbutt/pelvic thrust would likely still have seen him sent to an early shower.

So the former Porto and Sevilla man was sent off, and Vasco da Gama was down to 10 men. Immediately after the red card, Flamengo took advantage, powering in a pair of goals via Willian Arao and Orlando Berrio to take the lead 2-1. But Vasco wouldn’t quit, and they earned a penalty five minutes into stoppage time, which Nene buried for the 2-2 draw.

To top things off, a player named Yago Pikachu scored the opener for Vasco da Gama, which was followed by a delay in the game seven minutes later after a power surge in the stadium. Go figure.

Lletget diagnosed with foot sprain, escaping further damage

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Word has arrived from the LA Galaxy camp that will see USMNT fans feel relieved as Sebastian Lletget has escaped the news many feared.

The young attacker was impressive in the first 18 minutes of the United States’ 6-0 win over Honduras, but was injured minutes after scoring the opening goal and could not continue. Replays showed that Lletget got his foot caught underneath a defender in the process of a hard challenge on the right wing.

There was concern that Lletget would be out for a significant amount of time, but the Galaxy announced that after testing over the weekend, Lletget did not suffer any structural damage and was diagnosed with a left foot sprain.

[ MORE: USMNT adds Paul Arreola to roster, drops Lletget, Brooks, Morris ]

Lletget will visit a specialist on Monday to determine a plan for recovery, and it’s possible that he will still have to miss some time in the near future. The Galaxy visit Vancouver on Saturday, and his status for that match has to be considered up in the air. They then host Montreal on April 7.

While Lletget obviously misses out on the next USMNT game at Panama on Tuesday having already been dumped from the roster, he will most definitely be available for the June games against Trinidad & Tobago and Mexico, and will likely be an option for Bruce Arena given the manager’s history with Lletget at Los Angeles.

The United States have been struck with a collection of injuries that all occurred just before the international break, hampering the squad significantly. Bobby Wood, Jordan Morris, and Fabian Johnson all went down in the days before reporting for international duty, and the team lost Lletget and John Brooks in the Honduras win. Lletget’s departure could see Alejandro Bedoya into the starting lineup on Tuesday, with the Union midfielder having replaced Lletget in the Honduras match. Also in contention is Jermaine Jones, who could come in after his suspension and push Darlington Nagbe onto the wing.

Southgate can see Defoe in England squad long-term

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Gareth Southgate praised Jermain Defoe after his contributions to England’s 2-0 win over Lithuania on Sunday, but accidentally put a condition on his position in the squad.

The 34-year-old scored the opening goal and contributed heavily to the buildup of Jamie Vardy‘s score, and Southgate was happy that his decision to play an in-form striker paid off.

“If he scores like he is in the Premier League, there’s no reason why he wouldn’t be,” Southgate said. “We’re never able to pick a full cohort, so it’s important we can call upon the likes of Jermain and he can have the impact like he did today.

“I think we’ve got to look every time we get together as to who is in form. I don’t know if we can have a distinct pecking order because players who are playing well deserve the opportunity. If we are going to be successful, we have to have that competition for places. The reality is we will always lose players to injury.”

[ MORE: Defoe walks out Bradley Lowery before England game ]

A reporter asked him to clarify why he specified that Defoe should be scoring in the Premier League, and with his club Sunderland under heavy threat of relegation, Southgate admitted he let one slip.

“I walked into that,” Southgate said. “I guess the ideal world for all our players is they are playing regularly at a high level. The flip-side is we don’t have a huge pool of players to pick from.  We have to balance off a few different things. I can’t constrain myself on selection entirely, but I know ideally what I’d like to have. His performances and his goalscoring form this season have counted for him.”

Defoe has 14 goals in 28 Premier League appearances for Sunderland this season, but he’s proved the Black Cats’ only threat as they sit bottom of the league table with 20 points. Defoe has become the center of opposition game plans, and as a result he’s slowed down, with just two goals in his last seven games, and the club has little else to pick up the slack.

Still, at 34 years old, many wonder how much longer Defoe can contribute, and if he’ll be a viable option for next year’s World Cup.

Group F gets messy as Slovakia and Scotland grab wins

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England is in control at the top of Group F, but below them things are beginning to get complicated.

Despite the absence of Marek Hamsik due to a last-minute injury, Slovakia defeated Malta 3-1. They took the lead just 97 seconds in as Vladimir Weiss put the visitors in front with a beautiful curling strike from outside the box. Malta struck back through domestic striker Jean Paul Farrugia in the 14th minute, but that was all Malta could muster.

Slovakia would go ahead just before halftime as FC Copenhagen midfielder Jan Gregus put them in front in the 41st minute. The speculative shot from Gregus came from a great distance out, and as it skipped across the ground, it appeared Malta goalkeeper Andrew Hogg saw it late, as his dive was poor and it skipped off his hands and in.

Both teams ended with 10 men on the field, as Farrugia was sent off with 16 minutes to go for a second yellow, and Adam Nemec saw the same fate in injury time, but before he was sent off, Nemec was there to kill the game off in the 84th minute.

That put Slovakia up to nine points, and it moved them into second place thanks to late drama in Glasgow. Chris Martin gave Scotland all three points with an 88th minute strike as the home side won 1-0 over Slovenia, who dropped from second to third with the loss. The Fulham striker got a beautiful feed through the back line from Stuart Armstrong, and while his shot wasn’t terribly accurate, it was enough to win the game as Slovenia goalkeeper Matus Kozacik gave it a poor effort.

The win for Scotland pulls them above Lithuania and into fourth, a point back of Slovenia in third.