Mario Balotelli made his Liverpool debut in their 3-0 win over Spurs on Sunday. He played 61 minutes and though he couldn't finish several good chances on goal, his presence on the pitch for Liverpool was a positive one — concerning defenders for the right reasons and helping Raheem Sterling and Daniel Sturridge find space.
Sterling opened the scoring in the eighth minute. Balotelli didn't fight Steven Gerard to take the 49th minute penalty converted by the captain after the pecking order was explained to him earlier this week and fellow new arrival Alberto Moreno scored the third goal at the end of a blistering run that ruined Andros Townsend's day. All together it was a brilliant display from Liverpool and after the match, manager Brendan Rodgers was quick to praise Balotelli in a way that showed how pleased he was with his handling of a player with a reputation for being unmanageable.
From the Guardian:
Rodgers said the striker had initially been perplexed in training last week when asked to defend at corners. “For the first time in his life he marked at a corner,” said the Liverpool manager. “Seriously. An international player who has won three titles in Italy, cups, the Champions League. We were doing corners and I said to him: ‘I’m putting you on [a man] at [defensive] corners.’ He said: ‘I don’t mark at corners.’ ‘Ah, well you do now.’ He went in and he had a great header today from a corner. Treat him like an adult and that’s [what happens]."
“Mario’s a good guy, a good man. If you take away the circus that surrounds him, and the circus he probably invites himself sometimes, and control the background noise and get him focused on his football, he’s a good fella. He’ll make mistakes but I think today you saw him get his reward for a really good week’s work with the team fully focused on football: working, pressing, disappointed not to score but you can see he’ll be a handful for defenders. He is now at an age where he has got to show maturity. I am giving him responsibility."
Well that's that then. In one week Brendan Rodgers has managed to do what the likes of Jose Mourinho, Roberto Mancini and Clarence Seedorf couldn't and sort out Mario Balotelli's troubles by "treating him like an adult" and "giving him responsibility." Why didn't anyone else ever think of that? Then again, these aren't usually things one says about a 24-year-old professional who has traveled the world and won more trophies than his new manager. They're more like terms and approaches reserved for 14-year-olds who swear in front of their parents and won't do their homework.
It's bizarre, but many people — and Rodgers might have been one of them — seemed to believe that Balotelli would earn three red cards and burn down Anfield with novelty birthday candles in his first match. Week one has never been the problem at any of the clubs Mario has been with, though. Like anyone else, he's surely a bit nervous, eager to please, and hoping to fit in with his welcoming new surroundings. In the past, the problems have always taken time to develop as that newness wears off, the press becomes more smothering, and poor form or results breed frustration.
Taking away the circus is an idealistic thought that might work for a week, but is rarely possible in the long term. Sometimes Balotelli is the ringleader, yes, but many times the circus merely carries his name without consent.
His moments of indiscipline on and off the pitch are well documented, though the frequency of them is often exaggerated. His focus and determination in the face of repeated racial abuse from the stands and being used to attract interest in stories and myths wholly invented by third parties, which ends up providing very real distractions for club and player alike, is also too often unappreciated. And these are issues that can't be prevented by telling Balotelli that he now marks at corners.
Rodgers' assessments have proven premature in the recent past, as well. In March of this year, he told the Liverpool Echo that it was time to admire Luis Suarez and look to him as a role model. Three months later, Suarez bit an opponent for the third time in his career and he did it during the World Cup to earn himself a four-month ban from FIFA (that didn't stop him from orchestrating a transfer to Barcelona).
That's not to say that Rodgers won't help Balotelli mature as a player and a person, that signing him was an exercise in futility or that Mario is anything at all like Suarez. This could end up being the most successful period of his career. But that's not going to be decided in week one or by Brendan Rodgers publicly patting himself on the back.
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