Mario Balotelli: Liverpool's calculated £16m gamble

By Phil McNultyChief football writer
Liverpool's Mario Balotelli - his Premier League best and worst

Brendan Rodgers could not have shown more conviction - or been more convincing - when he stated in the strongest possible terms in Miami that Mario Balotelli would not be signing for Liverpool. There was no room for doubt or argument.

Throw the ever-changing world of the transfer market forward three weeks and 24-year-old Balotelli was boarding a plane in Italy bound for Merseyside ahead of completing one of the summer's most surprising deals.

Liverpool manager Rodgers, a co-operative straight dealer with the media, discovered truth can become a very early casualty in a worldwide search for the sort of calibre to replace Luis Suarez, who left Anfield for Barcelona this summer.

Balotelli puts Italy back in front

In his place comes an international striker with a rich pedigree, a Premier League title, a worldwide profile - but a whole barrel-load of "buts" and baggage. This is Liverpool jumping out of the frying pan into the fire and more besides.

The romantics among Liverpool's fan base will see the former Manchester City striker as the ideal anti-hero replacement for Suarez, a transfer gamble that could end up being ranked alongside Manchester United's left-field punt on the brilliantly gifted maverick Eric Cantona in November 1992 that provided the final planks on a bridge to a title that eluded Old Trafford for 26 years.

The sceptics will see Balotelli as the sort of erratic player and combustible personality who could upset the delicate dressing room balance and work ethic Rodgers has strived so hard to build up so successfully in his two seasons at Liverpool.

One thing is certain - life is about to get a lot more interesting at Anfield. What is not certain is whether the deal is a success - so what will Liverpool have weighed up in their calculations?

Balotelli at Manchester City 2010 - 2013
Games played54
Goals per game0.37

The pros

Where else in the inflated transfer market would Liverpool have got an established international at such a young age at such a relatively cheap price? It is no fault of Shane Long, but the £12m Southampton paid Hull City to secure a striker who is part of the Premier League's undercard will probably be used as a benchmark in this deal.

Balotelli, if the right buttons can be pressed (perhaps the biggest "if" in the game) is a mercurial, match-winning talent who can score goals, create goals and shape games.

And for a character who often appears so chaotic, there can occasionally be moments of icy calm in the heat of battle. Use as evidence the cool, slotted finish at the Stretford End against Manchester United in Manchester City's 6-1 win at Old Trafford in October 2011 - followed by the famous "Why Always Me?" T-shirt after accidentally setting his bathroom ablaze with fireworks in the days before that game.

Mario Balotelli
Balotelli revealed the T-shirt after scoring the opening goal in the October 2011 Manchester derby

There was also the penalty scored with serenity in the dying seconds of the crucial 3-2 win against Tottenham later that season - a game that saw him incur a retrospective four-match ban for stamping on Scott Parker.

Balotelli has also occasionally graced the international stage with Italy, a match-winner with two goals in the Euro 2012 semi-final against Germany in Warsaw and also with the decisive header in the 2-1 World Cup group game against England in Manaus this Brazilian summer.

The player's form dipped dramatically after a brilliant start at AC Milan but 30 goals in 54 games still represents a respectable return.

Daniel Sturridge arrived at Liverpool from Chelsea with questions about his character and attitude but has flourished superbly under Rodgers, while Suarez's behaviour improved remarkably with time and patience last season. He will feel he can achieve similar things with Balotelli.

Former Liverpool defender Gary Gillespie told BBC Sport: "If Liverpool can get him playing the way they know he can and curb his off-field antics they have certainly got a player, but no manager has been able to do it before. Brendan obviously has the confidence and belief he can do that."

These are the qualities (not to mention the price tag) that has persuaded Rodgers to shift his position so dramatically from the day he drew laughter from those gathered in a Miami room with his dismissal of the idea that Balotelli may be added to his squad.

At £16m, Liverpool and Rodgers have simply decided this is the price on the ticket of a risk worth taking.

The cons

Put simply, no manager has ever been able to curb Balotelli's eccentricities to achieve the consistency and success his natural gifts should bring. Will he always remain an unfulfilled and troubled talent?

No-one could have tried harder, or indulged him more, than his authoritarian hard-liner fellow Italian Roberto Mancini at Manchester City. He almost treated Balotelli like his son, often talking about how he "loved" Mario, but in the end it was all to no avail and he gave up on what seemed a pet project.

This close relationship did not stop the pair being involved in a training ground flare-up in January 2013 when Mancini reacted angrily to tackle by Balotelli on a team-mate. It was symptomatic of the indiscipline that provided a narrative throughout his time at the club.

Mario Balotelli
In March 2012, Mancini said of Balotelli: "No, I don't trust Mario. No-one trusts Mario."

Mancini once said: "I told him, if you played with me 10 years ago I would have given you every day maybe one punch in your head.

"I don't speak with him every day otherwise I would need a psychologist but I speak with him because I don't want him to lose his quality. If Mario is not one of the best players in the world it will be his fault because he has everything."

In the end, it counted for nothing and he ran out of chances at City before being sold to AC Milan for £19m in January 2013.

Often looking disinterested and ill-disciplined, he was also fined two weeks' wages after missing 12 games during the 2011-2012 season - although he initially threatened to take City to a tribunal over the matter.

Liverpool fans may remember a brief appearance as a substitute at Anfield in November 2011 when two yellow cards in the space of 18 minutes saw Balotelli - who most observers agreed resembled a small child in a bad mood - sent off.

There was also the rather bizarre episode of his retreat from the Europa League loss away to Dynamo Kiev with claims of an allergy to grass.

Then, the many stories of his lively off-field behaviour, although no-one at City ever suggested Balotelli was anything other than a popular figure, his scrapes more the result of a "child-like" attitude than any hint of malice.

The life of Mario
Balotelli joins Manchester City in August 2010 for £24m from Inter Milan. He scores 30 goals in 80 games and helps the club win their first Premier League title.He struggles with discipline at City and is involved in a training-ground altercation with then-manager Roberto Mancini, prompting his departure.
AC Milan sign Balotelli from City in January 2013 for £19m, and the striker goes on to score 30 goals in 54 games.Having impressed for Italy during Euro 2012, scoring twice in the semi-finals, he nets the winner against England at the 2014 Fifa World Cup in Brazil.

Gillespie added: "His reputation does go before him. It's a big gamble, a big risk but, Brendan, of all the young managers, will probably be the one to handle Balotelli better than most."

It is on the field where Rodgers will need to get it right. Will a player with a reputation as a poor trainer fit in with the Rodgers ethos? Will he be happy at the rotation policy Liverpool will expect him to buy into?

Suarez's indiscipline was confined to matches. Liverpool insiders talked often about how he trained with the same astonishing intensity with which he played. Balotelli, in contrast, often seemed to switch off and lose interest during matches - something Liverpool simply cannot afford.

Will he be tactically flexible enough to dovetail with Sturridge and do more than simply be a central striker?

And, most crucially, has he grown up enough to finally knuckle down and be a footballer rather than a circus act?

Few of Balotelli's clubs appear to have been sorry to see him go and his value is going down all the time. Evidence suggests he is running out of chances.

Former Liverpool defender Mark Lawrenson said: "We are either going to get Super Mario or Stupid Mario. On the field and playing well he's an absolutely outstanding talent but there are so many other things with him."

It is how Rodgers deals with these "other things" that will either make this deal a masterstroke or the biggest mistake of his Liverpool reign.


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