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.
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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.
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.
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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.
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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.
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.