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.

Louis van Gaal to take over at Everton?

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Bookmakers have slashed the odds of Louis Van Gaal becoming Everton’s new manager.

Van Gaal, 66, is now the second favorite to be the next permanent Toffees boss with Watford manager Marco Silva still the favorite to take charge at Goodison Park despite Everton having two bids for the Portuguese manager knocked back.

David Unsworth continues to lead Everton on an interim basis but with unimpressive results and performances, the jury is out on him being handed the job on a permanent basis.

LVG has been out of work since being fired by Manchester United in the summer of 2016, a few days after he won the FA Cup. The Dutchman and his unconventional methods led United to fourth and fifth place Premier League finishes in his two season at Old Trafford but he was often criticized by fans for their slow, predictable style of play.

Would van Gaal be a good fit for Everton?

His “name” would perhaps suit owner Farhad Moshiri who is looking to push Everton onto the next level and LVG’s penchant for developing young talent throughout his managerial career certainly aligns with Everton’s philosophy. Given the large number of talented youngsters they currently have (Ademola Lookman, Tom Davies, Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Mason Holgate to name a few) this may not be the worst appointment in the world.

Is van Gaal a bit odd? Yes, he’s pretty nuts. Would he be hungry to prove everyone in England wrong? Yes, he would be. Are Everton a team which has hit rock bottom and can easily improve in the coming months? Yes, that’s true. The lack of current candidates for the job do suggest that Everton’s expectations are perhaps a lot higher than their currently playing squad (assembled by LVG’s nemesis Ronald Koeman) can achieve.

Given his experience at Ajax, Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Man United, plus leading AZ Alkmaar, who had similar expectations to Everton, to a Dutch league title, perhaps the Toffees could do a lot worse than appointing LVG. That may be an unpopular opinion but if Everton can’t get Silva, can they really keep caretaker boss Unsworth in charge for much longer?

Plus, he’s always good value in press conferences and there would be plenty of added intrigue at Everton.

Niasse first-ever PL player to be charged with “deception”

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Oumar Niasse will go down in the history books. Not for a good reason.

[ RECAP: Palace 2-2 Everton

On Tuesday the English Football Association announced that Everton’s striker had succeeded in “successful deception of a match official” when winning a penalty kick for the Toffees at Crystal Palace on Saturday during their 2-2 draw.

In charging Niasse with simulation, he becomes the first-ever Premier League player to be sanctioned under new rules introduced in May.

Players in the lower-tiers of English soccer have already been banned for two games during this season for simulation and Niasse can either accept his automatic two-match ban or appeal the decision.

Niasse went down under minimal contact from Palace’s Scott Dann in the box and won a sixth-minute penalty kick which Leighton Baines scored. Niasse, who came close to joining Palace in the transfer deadline day in the summer, later scored an equalizer to make it 2-2.

The FA had the following to say about the decision to charge Niasse.

 “Incidents which suggest a match official has been deceived by an act of simulation are referred to a panel consisting of one ex-match official, one ex-manager and one ex-player. Each panel member will be asked to review all available video footage independently of one another to determine whether they consider it was an offence of ‘Successful Deception of a Match Official.’ Only in circumstances where the panel are unanimous would the FA issue a charge.”

Niasse did go down very easily and was looking straight towards referee Anthony Taylor for a penalty kick, which he received. If he appeals, it’s unlikely he will win it.

There is no place in the game for simulation and although it won’t get two points back for Crystal Palace, hopefully these bans will stamp it out of the game.

I’m all for more of these bans being dished out to stamp out the problem of simulation.

Premier League vet Kenwyne Jones retires at age 33

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It wasn’t the season that Kenwyne Jones had expected in his first Major League Soccer season, but the veteran Trinidad & Tobago striker had himself quite the career.

[ MORE: Miguel Almiron wins MLS Newcomer of the Year ]

Jones, 33, announced his retirement on Monday after boasting an extensive career in England prior to finishing up his playing with Atlanta United.

Atlanta opted not to renew Jones’ contract with the club after scoring twice in 17 appearances this season for the expansion side.

The Trinidadian posted the following message to supporters on Twitter this afternoon.

Jones spent nine seasons in the Premier League, including stints with Southampton, Stoke City and Sunderland.

Additionally, the forward played for Al Jazira from UAE in 2016 before moving on loan to Central in his native Trinidad prior to his arrival in Atlanta’s debut MLS season.

Eibar routs Betis 5-0 to snap 8-game winless streak in Spain

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MADRID (AP) Eibar routed 10-man Real Betis 5-0 in the Spanish league on Monday, ending an eight-match winless streak in all competitions.

Eibar hadn’t won since Sept. 15. It had lost six of its eight matches since then.

[ MORE: Brighton, Stoke finish level after Izquierdo’s second-half finish ]

The hosts got on the board with an own goal by Betis defender Jordi Amat just six minutes in, and midfielder Gonzalo Escalante scored with a header near halftime.

Striker Charles Dias scored twice in the second half, and Sergi Enrich closed the scoring in front of less than 5,000 fans at Ipurua Stadium.

“We deserved a victory like this to help us regain our confidence,” Enrich said.

Betis played with 10 men from the 55th as Aissa Mandi was red-carded for the foul that prompted a penalty kick converted by Dias.

“It was difficult to recover after we went a man down and they scored the third goal,” Betis midfielder Joaquin Sanchez said.

Eibar remained 17th in the 20-team standings, just outside the relegation zone.

Betis, winless in three matches, dropped to ninth place.

Barcelona leads by four points over second-place Valencia.

More AP Spanish soccer coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/LaLiga