When Brendan Rodgers opted to sign Mario Balotelli this summer to fill the void left by Luis Suarez, it was easy to feel that the Liverpool boss was a glutton for punishment. Bringing an end to Suarez’s turbulent yet spectacular spell at Anfield was a necessary step for Rodgers after the Uruguayan’s bite on Giorgio Chiellini at the World Cup became the latest in a long list of unsavoury episodes. Enter Balotelli – a man who is a worthy rival to Suarez when it comes to head-scratching antics.
The Italian has now played for four of the world’s biggest clubs, having previously worn out his welcome at Inter Milan, Manchester City and AC Milan. The talent is clearly there, but it is no coincidence that both Jose Mourinho and Roberto Mancini decided that the overall package was not going to be part of their team’s future.
And so far, Balotelli’s Liverpool career looks to be heading down a similar path. He is still waiting for his first league goal, despite a string of chances, and his effort level, body language and general on-field antics have generated anger and frustration.
Against Aston Villa, he became embroiled in a spat with Philippe Senderos that pulled his focus away from the task at hand – the Reds lost 1-0. At QPR, he was greedy in possession and complacent in front of goal – Liverpool escaped with a shaky 3-2 victory.
Then came the lowest point of all – the half-time shirt-swapping embarrassment against Real Madrid with the Reds trailing 3-0. Rodgers dealt with this latest misstep internally, but still handed Balotelli a starting role in the disappointing 0-0 draw at home to Hull at the weekend where the Italian at least showed signs of being more engaged in the action, even if he did miss two glorious chances.
But at what point does Balotelli become too much of a distraction? He once famously wore a “Why Always Me?” t-shirt yet he seems to go out of his way to make sure it is always about him. That is not the Liverpool way and former Reds stalwart Jamie Carragher spoke out after the Real Madrid game, calling Balotelli “a panic buy” and predicting that he would be exiting the club before next season. A stand outside Anfield offering fans the chance to swap their Balotelli shirts for Robbie Fowler or Ian Rush shirts seemed to support that view.
There is a counter argument of course. Daniel Sturridge has been injured for the majority of Balotelli’s time at Anfield, depriving Rodgers of a promising strike pairing, and this is a team in transition, with new faces fitting in all over the pitch. It is also true that Balotelli is just one of several players who are underperforming this term – from Glen Johnson and Dejan Lovren at the back to Philippe Coutinho and even Steven Gerrard in midfield.
And Balotelli’s goalscoring record is undeniably solid, with 30 goals in 80 appearances (many as a substitute) for Manchester City and 28 goals in 51 games for AC Milan – not to mention his unstoppable performances for Italy at Euro 2012 that powered the Azzurri to the final. It should be noted that the leniency in dealing with Suarez stemmed from the fact that, for all the headaches his actions caused, he was a ruthless goalscorer and his work rate and desire to win football matches could never be questioned. If Balotelli starts finding the net, the volume of the complaints will quickly drop.
The good news is that his manager sees better days ahead. With all the distracting headlines, it is easy to forget that the Italian is only 24.
“I’ve worked with him in training and I don’t think there is any danger of him losing his appetite, he always wants to train, always wants to play”, Rodgers said after the stalemate against Hull. "But strikers get their energy and their confidence from seeing the ball hit the back of the net.”
In the meantime, expect the scrutiny to continue. And not just on Balotelli. Rodgers’ record in the transfer market has been questionable at best and more is expected from other summer buys like Lazar Markovic and Javi Manquillo.
Liverpool’s Premier League fixture list for November is favourable, with the exception of a clash with front-runners Chelsea. If Balotelli is going to kickstart his Anfield career, the next few weeks will be crucial.