Mario Balotelli is no Luis Suarez, writes Dileep Premachandran
In trying to replace the prolific Uruguayan striker, Liverpool have gambled on the temperamental Italian forward — a risk that hasn’t quite paid off with Mario scoring just once in eight matches so far, writes Dileep Premachandran
Both goals were magnificent, different examples of the centre forward's art. For the first, the cross came in from the left. He shrugged off his marker, leapt as though going for a slam-dunk and headed the ball with such ferocity towards the near post that the goalkeeper was wrong-footed.
Mario Balotelli reacts during an EPL game at Anfield. Pic/Getty Images
The second stemmed from a raking pass from within the other half. He breached the offside trap, paused to chest the ball down and then hared towards the box. A yard inside it, and he left fly just as the ball was bouncing up. There was so much power behind the shot that the keeper didn't even have time for a futile dive.
These were not ordinary goals either. These were decisive in the semi-final of the European Championship, a competition that is often harder to win than the World Cup. They also came against a German side that would win the World Cup two years later.
Mario Balotelli has scored 11 other goals for the Italian national team, and 89 in all for the five clubs that he has played for, but those two in Warsaw during Euro 2012 are perhaps the best illustration of what Brendan Rodgers was hoping for when he took the 16-million-pound gamble to sign the striker from AC Milan.
Liverpool had a Luis Suarez-shaped hole in their forward line, and with other options either overpriced or uninterested, it wasn't as though Rodgers was spoilt for choice before transfer-deadline day.
Eight games in, however, and with only a goal to show for his troubles — against Bulgaria's Ludogorets in the Champions League — Rodgers has his back to the wall, with the I-told-you-so brigade in his face.
Liverpool knew what they were getting when they went for Balotelli. He is a scorer of spectacular goals, but no spectacular goal-scorer. Last season with Milan, when he tallied 18 goals in 41 outings, was the most prolific of his career. Suarez, who he replaced at Anfield, scored 31 in the league alone, despite missing the start of the season through suspension.
It isn't just the lack of goals that has hurt Liverpool though. Balotelli's inability to come to grips with the style of play has seriously affected the team's attacking brio. Rodgers is especially culpable in this regard. Liverpool were exceptional at times last season, even without Suarez, because they transitioned so quickly from defence to attack.
Balotelli doesn't suit that fluid style and at times, he doesn't even appear switched on to possibilities. Last weekend, when Raheem Sterling took a quick free kick that led to the opening goal against Queen's Park Rangers, Balotelli was jogging into the box with his back to the ball.
Suarez, in addition to scoring some magnificent goals, was a consummate team player, creating space for others with his runs and constantly foraging for the ball. Most forwards would suffer in comparison in terms of work-rate, but the contrast with Balotelli, who can sleepwalk through some games, is especially stark.
"I told him, if you played with me 10 years ago I would give you every day maybe one punch in your head," said Roberto Mancini once. "There are different ways to help a guy like Mario. 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."
Mancini coached him at both Internazionale and Manchester City. But even his patience ran out eventually. On the eve of the Manchester derby in October 2011, the fire brigade had to be called to Balotelli's house after he and some friends tried to send fireworks out of the bathroom window. Just 36 hours later, he scored the first two goals in a 6-1 demolition job.
A 3-0 trouncing of Tottenham aside, Liverpool have had a wretched season so far. Rightly or wrongly, Balotelli has become the scapegoat. He's only 24, but fast running out of chances. The dream move to Milan lasted just 54 games before mutual disillusionment set in. At this rate, he'll be lucky to get even half as many outings in a red shirt.
Dileep Premachandran is Wisden India's editor-in-chief