Getting Mario Balotelli to fire is Brendan Rodgers' biggest challenge
After the summer departure of Liverpool's talisman Luis Suarez to Barcelona, manager Brendan Rodgers had a mighty task in his hands to fill up the void left by their star forward. In came Southampton's Rickie Lambert and AC Milan's Mario Balotelli. The latter was expected to be their new showman alongside Daniel Sturridge. But so far, it has been a tale of frustration for Liverpool with Balotelli failing to live up to the expectations.
For 16million GBP, Balotelli looked one of the best buys of this summer transfer window, along with former Bayern Munich midfielder, Toni Kroos, who was bought by Real Madrid for a decent 20million GBP. Where Kroos has mastered the art of central midfield under Carlo Ancelotti, Balotelli has been struggling to deliver the performances expected of him.
Without Sturridge, who has been on the injury list since September, the special task of leading the forward line had been given to Balotelli. But the Italian has looked often a shadow of his former self on the pitch and this in turn is seeing the Reds struggle. A 3-0 loss against Real, followed by a dull 0-0 draw at Anfield, showcased Liverpool's poor form this season after a summer spending spree.
What is evident from Liverpool's showing so far is that they miss the famed partnership of Luis Suarez alongside Daniel Sturridge. Raheem Sterling enjoyed the freedom upfront behind the two in a diamond, a luxury that has not been enjoyed by the 19-year old so far. His movement at times has been limited and the Englishman isn't getting the link-up play which he so much enjoyed with the 'SAS' combo.
The absence of Sturridge has seen Balotelli play as the lone striker upfront. His impact-play has been good but it's the goals that have eluded him so far. And Liverpool desperately need him to score.
Balotelli has just managed to score a solitary goal in all competitions for Liverpool. In the Premier League, he is yet to open his account. Chances have gone begging and the finishing lacks flair. Since his move to Liverpool, Mario has been the centre of attraction for everybody. It was an expected thing and now he finds himself in a familiar situation of being constantly criticised from all corners. Even manager Rodgers has asked him to prove his worth within two months. This in turn has shown the trust deficit between player and manager that raises questions regarding his future at Anfield.
Following Mario's arrival at Merseyside, his agent stated that Liverpool is the last hope for Balotelli to resurrect his controversial career. Within three months, Balotelli's antics have started to come alive on and off the pitch. The former AC Milan striker was at the centre of an investigation by Greater Manchester police after having allegedly confronted a woman who had taken photographs of his red Ferrari last week. The Liverpool striker was alleged to have threatened the woman.
In the Champions League encounter against Real Madrid at Anfield, Balotelli again came under the scanner for swapping his shirt with defender Pepe during half-time, as the two teams made their way to the tunnel. This gesture clearly did not go down too well with the fans and fellow players.
Rodgers now is confronted with a problem of dealing with the striker not just on the pitch but manage his antics off it as well. Having bought him to fill in the shoes of Suarez, the former isn't even performing to his best. Against Hull City on Saturday, his performance on the day for a tepid Liverpool side showcased frustrations all around.
It would not be possible to alter the personality of Balotelli off the pitch. Even the Italy international seems to care little about his flaws and immaturity. But what Rodgers can definitely do is get the best out of him as a player on the pitch. That serves as a big challenge for Rodgers.
Balotelli will be wary of the limited time on hand with regards to form. With a heavy schedule lined up for Liverpool who are involved in several competitions, Rodgers needs to get his star player going before it's too late.
There is a dire need of Daniel Sturridge's return from injury and playing alongside him may help Balotelli improve and be more effective. Also the need for the 24-year old to adjust to Rodgers' philosophy is crucial. The Northern Irish manager has shown a lot of faith in the striker and the coming weeks will be an important test for the relationship between the duo.
Balotelli led Liverpool's comeback in the Capital One Cup victory against Swansea City at home in the pre-quarters. After trailing 0-1 till the 85th minute, Balotelli equalised for the hosts before centre-back Dejan Lovren headed in the winner. This will be a breathing space for the Italian but the work has only started.
With Liverpool competing in multiple competitions, 'Super Mario' has time to make amends. But a failure to do so could well mark an early end for the former City and Milan forward's career at Liverpool.