Balotelli-Why Me

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.

VIDEO: Should Marcos Rojo have been sent off for two-footed challenge?

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The box score only shows a yellow card for Marcos Rojo in the 16th minute, but the game tells a much different tale.

Early on in a physical battle, minutes after Gareth Barry seemed to have been let off without punishment for a hard foul on Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Rojo left his feet and flew in with both studs up on Idrissa Gueye. Referee Michael Oliver showed him only a caution, but replays showed that Rojo was airborne for a moment, and his crunching challenge landed directly on Gueye’s right leg.

[ MORE: Zlatan Ibrahimovic puts Manchester United 1-0 up on Everton ]

Looking at the moment of impact, it seems a miracle that Gueye was able to pop straight up from the challenge without so much as a scratch, as it could have been much, much worse had Rojo’s feet landed in a vulnerable spot on the Everton midfielder’s leg. Referees never like to condemn a team to such a disadvantage in the early stages of a game, but this seemed to be an incredibly dangerous moment.

Everton ended up with a 1-1 draw in the match after former Everton midfielder Marouane Fellaini conceded a late penalty just two minutes after coming off the bench, but the Toffees likely would have benefitted even greater from playing 74 minutes with a man advantage.

Did Rojo deserve a red card? Or did Michael Oliver get the decision right? The guys in studio at halftime seemed to agree that Rojo should have been sent to the showers.

Everton 1-1 Manchester United: Fellaini concedes late penalty

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Jose Mourinho has complained all month that Manchester United is the unluckiest team in the Premier League, and he will have more fodder for his rant – deserved or not – as the Red Devils conceded a late penalty as they drop points at Everton in a 1-1 draw.

It appeared that Zlatan Ibrahimovic‘s goal in the final minutes of the first half would be enough, but Everton was gifted a way back as a lumbering Marouane Fellaini conceded a penalty just two minutes after coming off the bench, and the game finished level despite a flurry of activity down the stretch.

The game had a chippy start, with a number of early thumping challenges. Referee Michael Oliver missed an easy decision, as Marcus Rojo found only yellow for his 16th minute lunge on Idrissa Gueye, clearly deserving red as he lept off both feet and went studs-in on the 50/50 ball, an incredibly dangerous challenge lucky not to leave the Everton man with a lasting impact.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

As tensions rose early, the game opened up. United seemed to have the best chances forward as they launched balls into the box, but struggled to find the final ball as the half-hour mark passed. The visitors came close to threading players through, such as Henrikh Mkhitaryan on 37 minutes, but Ramiro Fuenes Mori – in for the benched captain Phil Jagielka – made a vital sliding tackle to end the chance.

Everton, meanwhile, struggled to get out of its own half as United pressed hard throughout the first half. Finally, just three minutes before the break, Manchester United got the breakthrough. A long ball from Anthony Martial from United’s own half met a streaking Ibrahimovic guarded by Funes Mori. Goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg inexplicably came off his line, leaving the goal gaping for Zlatan to karate-kick the ball in. The ball took forever to cross the line, bouncing four times and touching the crossbar and a post before it tricked in. Funes Mori gave it a run, but having given up on Zlatan’s touch, he was just too late to prevent the goal.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

Everton didn’t seem too incisive until suddenly their best chance of the game came in on 53 minutes. A one-two between Belgians Kevin Mirallas and Romelu Lukaku saw the former in on goal, but David De Gea produced a fabulous reflex save with his right leg to keep out the shot. United could have gone 2-0 up as Ander Herrera volleyed a bouncing ball on net on the hour mark, but he clattered the crossbar with his powerful shot.

The Toffees made the first change on 65 minutes with Tom Cleverley coming off to home fan jeers, replaced by Gerard Deulofeu. Neither team had a big moment as time ticked down, and Jose Mourinho looked to bring on fresh legs as he introduced Marouane Fellaini and Anthony Martial.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]

As the clock wound down, it was a substitute to make an impact, but not in his own team’s favor. Fellaini, on the pitch just two minutes before he thumped into Gueye in the penalty area, and Michael Oliver pointed to the spot. Leighton Baines slotted home the penalty just past the outstretched gloves of de Gea, and Everton were level.

The home side, awoken by the opportunity for more, lurched forward in huge spurts as the game wound down. Despite the pressure, United held well down the stretch, even producing a counter-attack that nearly produced a winner on the other end if not for a vital interception by substitute Mason Holgate.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

The game represents the third 1-1 draw in a row for Manchester United in league play despite good midweek form in the cup. They sit on 21 points in sixth position in the Premier League table, now 13 back of the top of the table. Meanwhile, the point for Everton at home is also somewhat disappointing, as they’ve won just one in their last eight and have 20 points in eighth.

VIDEO: Zlatan Ibrahimovic punishes Stekelenburg mistake with incredible looping goal

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Of course Zlatan would score like this. Of course he would.

With Maarten Stekelenburg deciding to come off his line and challenge Zlatan Ibrahimovic all the way out at the corner of the box, the super Swede poked the ball with his trademark karate kick. His touch sent the ball looping over Stekelenburg and into the net, but not without plenty of fun.

[ RECAP: Manchester United held by Everton on late penalty ]

The ball comes down right on the line, bounces straight up into the crossbar, and comes back down still without having crossed the line. As the ball pin-balled around, Everton defender Ramiro Funes Mori realized the goal maybe could be kept out, and began to sprint his way back, but the ball slowly bounces over the line just before Funes Mori got there to clear it out. Unfortunately, replay showed the Toffees defender gave up on Zlatan’s touch; had he sprinted the whole way back, he likely would have reached the ball before it trickled over the line.

The goal is Zlatan’s eighth of the season, and put Manchester United 1-0 up just three minutes before the halftime break.

Scoring off four bounces and two posts is definitely daring to Zlatan.

VIDEO: Jurgen Klopp calls Bournemouth’s comeback a “deserved win”

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Jurgen Klopp clearly struggled to come to terms immediately with their collapse against Bournemouth, as Liverpool fell 4-3 on an injury time winner after leading 3-1.

The Reds were incisive throughtout the opnening hour, but once Ryan Fraser came off the bench the game changed, and Nathan Ake finally scored the winner four minutes into extra time.

“I think I have to say an absolutely deserved win for Bournemouth. Congratulations for this performance and for this big fight, what they delivered today. I think for a long part of the game we were the better side and we would have deserved to win, but in the decisive moment we gave the game away to Bournemouth. We opened them the door and they ran through with all they had, so that’s absolutely deserved because they stayed in the game and scored some wonderful goals.”

[ RECAP: Bournemouth completes stunning 3-goal comeback vs Liverpool ]

Klopp appeared to be collecting his thoughts as he spoke, often trailing off sentences to formulate new thoughts. What could be taken away, however, was that he believes, coming off a down year, that a rebuilt Liverpool squad is still learning how to complete full matches in a winning manner.

“When you’re on the way from…I would say, last year number nine in the league, a kind of average team…to a team which really wants to achieve something…when you have a start like we had, sometimes life and the impressions you can collect leads you in this direction to think ‘oh we are really good’ and we are good, but at the end only when we are 100% [will we be good].”

The German’s body language appeared to show he wasn’t too concerned about the loss, but didn’t hold back about his assessment of the team’s performance.

“First half I said – even when we were in the lead – I said that how we tried to play football was not good, it was kind of static. Then we concede a goal, then we scored a goal, 3-1 now it’s decided if you want. Obviously we gave it again away because we didn’t play football anymore so…and that’s our fault, and credit is to Bournemouth.”

Klopp finished with a chuckle, saying “if we learn from it it’s ok, and we’ll learn from it, but we were really bad.”