Mario Balotelli didn’t score, but there’s a lot more that can be taken from his first hour in a Liverpool shirt.
Namely, the fact that he lasted an hour on the pitch.
Balotelli’s demeanor was that of a child who had been put in timeout and only allowed to return should he agree to behave.
There were a few moments that played into the notion that Rodgers is in control, not Balotelli.
In the opening minutes, Balotelli had a brilliant chance to get his Liverpool tenure off to a flying start, but instead struck his header right at Hugo Lloris who saved easily. In the past, Old Balotelli would have sulked immediately, using early failures as an excuse to slump into a mental prison of overwhelming frustration. Instead, he plodded on like nothing happened, even applauding Sturridge’s pinpoint cross. He was rewarded with another headed chance about 10 minutes later.
The Italian was absolutely rocked by a challenge from Eric Dier that should have produced at least a yellow card, if not more, but Phil Dowd failed to punish the young Englishman. Instead of reacting angrily or even challenging the refereeing decision, Balotelli simply rolled around for a while before accepting the situation and playing on.
When Liverpool were awarded a penalty soon after halftime, the usually fiery Balotelli was nowhere to be seen when Steven Gerrard stepped up to take the spot kick. In the past, Balotelli has been known to disrespect a team’s set-piece hierarchy, instead insisting he take every chance.
It harkened back to the build-up to the match, when NBC’s broadcast showed a clip of Balotelli speaking with Gerrard before the game. The conversation appeared to not only be conducted in a very respectful manner, but was clearly led by the Liverpool captain, with Balotelli listening and absorbing information about his new club.
Finally, the best moment came after the match. Usually guarded about internal affairs, Rodgers spoke freely in the postmatch press conference on one of his first training interactions with his new striker.
Rodgers: "I said to Mario, 'You're picking up a man at [defensive] corners'. He said: 'I don't mark at corners'. I said: 'You do now'"—
Sam Wallace (@SamWallaceIndy) August 31, 2014
And mark he did, even providing cover down the flanks during Spurs buildup. It wasn’t the best of marking, as he committed a pair of fouls on the wing. But it’s a start, and a very good one at that.
Roberto Mancini was unable to get control of Balotelli. Clarence Seedorf couldn’t do it. Even Jose Mourinho couldn’t do it. But it appears early on, Rodgers has figured out the mercurial Italian. It will take time to see if this is truly the case, but if so, this could be the start of something special at Anfield.
After all, Balotelli is a special player. That much is obvious. He just needs someone to reign in his wild and primal emotions. Someone like Brendan Rodgers.